Monday January 3rd, 2011

No. 8 Arkansas (10-2) vs. No. 6 Ohio State (11-1) Jan. 4, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

For the past week, it seems the only news surrounding the Sugar Bowl has involved the five Ohio State players -- including quarterback Terrelle Pryor and leading rusher Boom Herron -- who have been suspended by the NCAA for the first five games of next season for selling memorabilia. Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan said he appealed to Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith to get the suspensions pushed to the 2011 season. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Ohio State officials succeeded in lobbying the NCAA to leave the players eligible for the game. Hoolahan told The Columbus Dispatch that he wanted to "preserve the integrity of this year's game."

While Hoolahan's delight in subverting the NCAA enforcement process for the sake of ratings doesn't say much about the bowl's integrity, the decision to allow the Buckeyes to play should make for an excellent game -- which is exactly what Hoolahan wanted in the first place.

1. The forgotten men. Outside the mid-South, no one is talking about Arkansas. That's a mistake. The Razorbacks' two losses came against Alabama and at national title contender Auburn. (And the loss at Auburn came with backup quarterback Tyler Wilson at the controls for much of the game.) Quarterback Ryan Mallett, who took snaps from Ohio State guard Justin Boren while the two were teammates at Michigan in 2007, is the best signal-caller the Buckeyes have seen all season. Mallett, a 6-foot-6, 238-pound pocket passer, has thrown for 3,592 yards and 30 touchdowns.

The emergence of tailback Knile Davis as a go-to ballcarrier has made the Arkansas offense even more dangerous. Davis has rushed for at least 100 yards in the Razorbacks' past four games, and Arkansas has averaged 42 points per game during that span.

2. Tough nuts to crack. The Hogs' offense should feel right at home against the Buckeyes' defense, because Ohio State's D is even stingier than the ones Arkansas faced in the SEC West. The Buckeyes rank third in the nation in scoring defense (13.3 points per game) and second in total defense (250.6 yards per game). Led by cornerback Chimdi Chekwa (three interceptions, eight passes broken up), the Buckeyes have picked off 18 passes. The defensive end tandem of Nathan Williams and Cameron Heyward has combined for 19 tackles for loss, and linebacker Brian Rolle leads the team with 10 tackles for loss.

Ohio State is especially tough in the fourth quarter. In the final quarter this season, opponents have scored only 41 points (3.4 per game) and converted only 24.4 percent of their third downs against the Buckeyes.

3. One for the league. Bowl games in a given year are actually lousy indicators of conference strength -- other than the national title game, who really knows which teams want to be at their respective bowls? -- but the Big Ten could use a morale boost after getting clubbed on New Year's Day. The league went 0-5 on the day, including 0-3 against the SEC and 0-1 against the Sisters of the Poor, so a win in a BCS bowl against an SEC opponent would help salve those wounds.

A win would be especially meaningful for Ohio State, which hasn't played an SEC team since consecutive BCS title game losses to Florida and LSU following the 2006 and 2007 seasons. "Personally, I have lost three in a row against the SEC," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "I'm not tired of hearing about it. It's a reminder to me of just how good the SEC is in football. We are playing another great one in Arkansas."

Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino is only the third coach in the BCS era to lead two different schools to a BCS bowl. (Petrino's Louisville team won the 2007 Orange Bowl.) That puts Petrino in pretty good company. The other two coaches to pull off the feat are Alabama's Nick Saban (LSU, Alabama) and recently retired Florida coach Urban Meyer (Utah, Florida). NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline shares his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:

Arkansas: QB Ryan Mallett* -- Mallett is a prototypical pocket passer with the arm strength needed to make all the passes in the NFL. He's been closely monitored by scouts since his days at Michigan, and though there's no questioning his physical skills, the consensus is that Mallett needs a lot of work before he'll be NFL ready. He is expected to enter the draft. Grade: First-round prospect.

Ohio State: DL Cameron Heyward -- Heyward bypassed last year's draft for a chance to improve his stock, and few will argue it paid off. Heyward is a big body who controls the line of scrimmage and has the skills to be used at a variety of positions up front. He's not a spectacular pass rusher, but he's a very steady defensive player who does the little things well. Grade: First-round prospect.

The controversy swirling around the suspended Ohio State players must have offered a distraction, but the Buckeyes dealt with the situation early and left plenty of time for the players to focus on the game. With Pryor playing, Ohio State coaches may want to swipe a page from Auburn's playbook. Cam Newton, the Tigers' fast, 6-6, 250-pound quarterback, shredded the Hogs for 188 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. Pryor, Ohio State's fast, 6-6, 233-pound quarterback, might have similar success if the Buckeyes don't go conservative.

Buttoning up the offense wouldn't be wise, because even though Ohio State's defense is excellent, Arkansas is going to score points. If Davis can establish the Razorbacks' run game, Mallett can carve up even the best secondary. Ohio State's best bet is to try to do what Alabama's defense did -- hit Mallett as often as possible and try to force him into ill-advised throws.

The Pick: Arkansas 31, Ohio State 27

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