Buckeyes, Big Ten show they can rival both SEC's teams and ethics

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One of your teams beat an SEC team in a BCS bowl. One of your fan bases finally got to serenade departing fans with a mocking S-E-C chant. For you, Tuesday was as sublime as Saturday was awful. Even better, Ohio State beat Arkansas not because of some stereotypical strength-versus-speed fiction but because the Buckeyes were the better team, plain and simple.

Congratulations, Ohio State. You snapped a nine-game losing streak to the SEC in bowl games with your 31-26 Sugar Bowl win against Arkansas. When some Southerner starts talking about all that "ESSS EEEEE SEEEEE speed," you may remind him of the times Buckeyes receivers raced past Arkansas defensive backs or the times Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward blew past the Razorbacks' linemen.

Unfortunately, there is now one thing you can't do.

Thanks to the events of the past month, you've forfeited the right to the moral superiority you've enjoyed over the SEC. You can be as good as the SEC on the field, but the human beings in the Big Ten's premier athletic department are no better than the human beings in the athletic departments at the football factories in the SEC. Yes, the SEC oversigns, and that's highly unethical. Yes, SEC programs have players who commit NCAA violations, and that's highly unethical.

Well guess what? Ohio State also has players who commit NCAA violations. Five of them played Tuesday, and Ohio State wouldn't have won without them.

Five players sold memorabilia to a Columbus tattoo artist for cash and ink and got caught. For their crimes against the NCAA, they were suspended five games. The school, the conference and the NCAA worked together to dig up a rule that allowed the school to delay the suspensions until next season because Ohio State didn't properly educate the players. Athletic director Gene Smith claimed the school hadn't taught the players that selling their memorabilia was against NCAA rules. (It probably shouldn't be against the rules, but that's another column I wrote another day.)

Quarterback Terrelle Pryor -- who would have been suspended had no deal been cut -- played brilliantly. He completed 14 of 25 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 115 yards. He was named the Sugar Bowl's most outstanding player, and as he held the trophy on the award stand, everyone wondered what price the award would fetch on the open market if Pryor sold it as he did the Fiesta Bowl sportsmanship award he received two years ago.

Receiver Devier Posey -- who would have been suspended -- caught a touchdown pass. Left tackle Mike Adams -- who would have been suspended -- protected Pryor from the Arkansas pass rush and opened holes for tailback Dan "Boom" Herron -- who wouldn't have rushed for 87 yards and wouldn't have scored a touchdown because he also would have been suspended.

Defensive end Solomon Thomas closed the game surrounded by joyous teammates because he intercepted a Ryan Mallett pass in the waning seconds as the Razorbacks tried for the go-ahead score after blocking an Ohio State punt. The Arkansas comeback seemed certain until Thomas cradled that ball in his arms. Had no deal been cut, Thomas and his arms would have been home in Columbus, because he would have been suspended.

"I want to thank Gene Smith, coach [Jim] Tressel, compliance. They've been with us through all this." Thomas said. "This has been the happiest ending."

It's unclear whether Thomas was thanking Ohio State's compliance department for improperly educating the players -- thus allowing Columbus Ink to play in the bowl -- or if he was thanking the compliance department for partially taking the bullet -- thus allowing Columbus Ink to play in the bowl.

Pryor pretty much blew up the whole education defense on Saturday anyway. It was a laughable gambit to begin with, and it appeared even more naked and pathetic when Pryor offered the following quote to reporters: "What did I learn? It's two years ago, you know, so I already knew what I should have done two years ago," Pryor said. "So to tell the truth, I didn't learn much because I already knew what I should have did two years ago. Now I wouldn't make the same decision, so I couldn't tell you I learned something because I already knew what I did wrong."

But wait. If Ohio State began educating its players after Pryor sold his 2008 gold pants and that sportsmanship trophy, how did he know it was wrong? Details, details.

Ohio State's athletic department and the Big Ten needed Columbus Ink on the field Tuesday. Can't get whipped by the SEC on the big stage again. Can't let a valuable bowl partner's ratings plummet. These sound awfully similar to the complaints offered by folks from the Big Ten when the SEC appeared to grease the tracks on the ruling that allowed Auburn quarterback Cam Newton to play in the SEC title game and, ultimately, the BCS title game. Newton's father tried to sell his son to Mississippi State, but an NCAA eligibility committee ruled Newton had no knowledge and therefore merited no punishment. That no-knowledge defense sure gets around.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was one of the people grousing about the Newton ruling. After Columbus Ink played, Delany lost the moral authority to complain.

To their credit, quite a few Ohio State fans protested the decision to allow the Tattooed Five to play because it would invite the precise comparison everyone has made since the confetti flew Tuesday night. These Buckeyes didn't want to win at all costs. They didn't want their favorite program to stoop to a level they consider beneath it. They were overruled.

To avoid making this a completely toothless punishment, Tressel said he secured a pledge from each player that he would return for next season. This was a leap of faith on the coach's part. The players are not obligated to stay, and they have until Jan. 15 to decide if they want to enter their names in the NFL draft.

Pryor certainly seems gung-ho about returning to Ohio State, even though he probably helped his pro stock immensely with his performance Tuesday. "I don't think I'm ready for the NFL," Pryor said after the game. "I think I've got a lot of learning and better decision-making I have to make on and off the field. ... I need to grow up a little."

Posey also has been adamant about his return. Thomas, a backup, really isn't a question mark.

Adams is another story. Asked if he would return next season, he declined to provide a definitive answer. "I'm just waiting to see this appeal process and everything," he said after the game. "But I'm looking forward to the 2011 Bucks." Herron vacillated between certainty and uncertainty. "We still have to go through a couple of things," Herron said. "We'll see how things go, and we'll take it from there." Asked to clarify his statement, Herron said this: "I mean, we're going to come back. Coach Tressel told us if we played in this game, we had to come back. So I plan for all of us to be back."

If they all do come back, and if the youngsters who will replace them for the first five games keep the Buckeyes winning, the Buckeyes might find themselves back in the Superdome in January 2012 playing another SEC team. That meeting just might be for the national title.

Ohio State can win that game because, on the field, it is every bit as good as the powers of the SEC. As we learned these past few weeks, the Buckeyes also can stand toe-to-toe with any SEC compliance department.

Tuesday, Ohio State ended its bowl drought against the SEC. The Buckeyes proved once and for all that if you join them, you can beat them.