Lauren Rabaino

Saving the best for last just took on a whole new meaning for the Cal Poly football program. The Mustangs will play at Big Ten Conference power Wisconsin in each team’s regular-season finale Nov. 22 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., both schools announced Friday.

“I am excited that our players will have the opportunity to play against an exceptional program like Wisconsin,” said Cal Poly athletics director Alison Cone in a statement. “Every athlete wants to test himself or herself against the best.”

Even if Wisconsin, which finished 2007 No. 24 in the Associated Press poll, weren’t one of the best teams with one of the best stadiums in the country, it’d certainly be one of the biggest in both respects.

Just about every difference between the starkly disparate teams seems larger than life.

Wisconsin, a three-time Rose Bowl champion (1994, 1999 and 2000) two Heisman Trophy winners have hailed from, averaged an attendance of 81,746 in seven home games last fall, and has drawn at least 70,000 to 95 consecutive games.

Cal Poly, by contrast, drew a total of 48,222 in its five home games last season.

According to the teams’ rosters released Monday, the average weight of Wisconsin’s 11 offensive linemen is 302 pounds, while the same average for Cal Poly’s 18 defensive linemen is 242.

P.J. Hill, Wisconsin’s junior, 227-pound starting running back, is listed as heavier than six of Cal Poly’s starting or reserve defensive linemen and linebackers.

“It will be an adventure,” Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson said in a statement. “Typically this type of game happens early in the season. But this one is unique in that we will play Wisconsin at the end of the season.

“The danger here is that, if we’re looking at a playoff berth, we could put ourselves in physical danger, but it will feel a bit like a bowl game. We will get to test ourselves and find out how difficult it is to play those teams at that level.”

The Badgers finished 9-4 and fourth in the Big Ten in 2007, falling 21-17 to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. They’re 25-1 at home over the past four seasons, and 7-0 in each of the past two. Only nine other teams in the country have won at least 40 games over the past four seasons.

Although Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) Cal Poly has faced Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) teams from the Western Athletic, Mountain West and Sun Belt conferences the past three seasons, Wisconsin will be its first-ever Bowl Championship Series opponent.

Key to Wisconsin’s interest in the game, its announcement explained, was that it completed a 12-game slate without having to fill an open date Sept. 20, a week before the commence of Big Ten play.

“In contacting more than 20 schools from other BCS conferences with mutual open dates, we were unable to secure a game,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said in a statement. “Cal Poly clearly is a talented football team and I’m appreciative of their willingness to come to Madison. I also can’t emphasize enough how important I think a bye week (Sept. 20) is for our players and I’m very pleased we were able to achieve that.”

Perhaps one of the most pleasing aspects of the arrangement from Cal Poly’s perspective could be the appearance fee it will be paid by Wisconsin.

Wisconsin officials with knowledge of the deal could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

Although the school’s announcement didn’t disclose financial parameters of the arrangement, according to The Capital Times of Madison, Wis., in 2006 fellow Big Ten member Iowa paid FCS Montana $650,000 for a visit, and Wisconsin itself paid non-BCS Buffalo $600,000 for the same favor.

Badgers athletics director Barry Alvarez told The Capital Times the amount paid to Cal Poly was “reasonable.”

The Mustangs, who finished 7-4 last season, likely emerged as a worthwhile FCS invitation after losing just one starter from an offense that finished second in the subdivision in total offense, compiling 487.1 yards per game.

That output took a backseat only to the 488.3 mark of national champion Appalachian State, which opened its season by stunning then-fifth-ranked, FBS Michigan 34-32 Sept. 1.

But a mere five Cal Poly defensive starters remain from last season’s unit that finished 62nd in total defense, allowing 370.4 yards per game.

The Mustangs, whose full schedule has not yet been released, opened spring practice drills Wednesday morning in the first of sessions that will run through March 8 leading up to a spring game tentatively scheduled for 11 a.m. April 5 at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.

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