Sugar Bowl preview

Ohio State and Arkansas will meet on Tuesday night in the Sugar Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome.

Here’s a closer look at the contest between the Big Ten’s Buckeyes and the Razorbacks of the SEC.

Ohio State (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten): Which Buckeyes squad will we see when they take the field? The confident bunch led by the quarterback with swagger? Or a squad that has been somewhat humbled by NCAA violations and impending doom in 2011? How Ohio State comes out in its first series both on offense and defense will initially be the most intriguing aspect of this contest. At his news conference on Monday, Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel said Terrelle Pryor is “pressing to do the best he possibly can” and has often described his dual-threat signal caller as a perfectionist. We saw what he was able to do on the Rose Bowl stage last year against Oregon, earning offensive MVP honors in the victory. Will he press amid all of the off-the-field distractions? Besides the NCAA saga, there is also the fact that the Buckeyes are 0-9 against the SEC in their bowl history.

Dan HerronICONDan Herron could find running room against the Arkansas defense.

Of course, Pryor can’t carry the load by himself on offense even if he is focused and ready to play his best game of the season. It will be integral for OSU to get Dan Herron, who will also miss the first five games of 2011, a healthy dose of carries early on to keep Ryan Mallett and the prolific Razorbacks offense off the field. Herron played his best ball toward the end of the regular season, and Arkansas’ defense is susceptible to the run. The Hogs rank in the middle of the pack nationally — 66th at 157.4 yards per game — so the Buckeyes’ offensive line should be excited about potentially moving the ball methodically down the field and controlling that side of the ball.

Arkansas (10-2, 6-2 SEC): Does the offensive show begin and end with Mallett? Well, yes and no. The Razorbacks have plenty of weapons for their quarterback to choose from in the passing game. The 6-6, 238-pounder, who became just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to pass for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons, has thrown touchdown passes to 10 different Razorbacks this season, so he likes to spread it around and share the wealth. But for Mallett to be his most deadly self, establishing running back Knile Davis will be crucial to the team’s success.

Entering this season, Davis was just a guy in a crowded Razorbacks backfield. But since the win against Texas A&M, Davis asserted himself as the top dog for the Hogs. He has four games of at least 150 yards and eight contests of at least 80 yards, finding the end zone 13 times along the way. Early in the season head coach Bobby Petrino didn’t have the balanced offense to keep defenses guessing and take control of games with a lead. Davis’ emergence changed that, and it’ll be interesting to see if the Hogs can wear down the Buckeyes — because this is a deceptively physical Razorbacks squad.

What will be the difference?

Mallett will lead the Razorbacks down the field on Tuesday night. But what happens in the red zone? Ohio State led the Big Ten and is ranked No. 7 in the nation in red zone defense. Even more impressive, the unit has only allowed only five passing touchdowns inside the 20. How well the Razorbacks play in this area offensively could be the decisive factor. Of course, Mallett took his share of criticism early in the season for his failure to win big games. But after the disastrous second half against Alabama, he proved critics wrong by leading the team to wins over Top 25 squads South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU in November.

Knile DavisICONKnile Davis gives a loaded Arkansas offense some balance.

Still, the improvements Arkansas has made on the defensive side of the ball under coordinator Willy Robinson is the big story. Coming into the season, we all wondered how the Hogs’ defense would complement the explosive offense. After ranking 89th in the nation in total defense in 2009, the Razorbacks rank 33rd this season and have been better at not giving up many big plays with the exception of the Auburn game. Still, it will be a tough challenge stopping an Ohio State offense that enters the game averaging 39.4 points per game — even better than the 37.3 points per game that Arkansas averages each week.

The numbers don’t lie

• The Big Ten went 0-5 in bowl games on New Year’s Day, and once again the nation is poking fun at the Midwest conference. Can the Buckeyes salvage the postseason for Jim Delany’s league?

• Arkansas was second in the SEC with 37 sacks. Can the Hogs get to and wrap up Pryor before letting him get comfortable in the pocket?

• This is the first BCS game for Arkansas, but this will be the program’s 38th postseason contest and sixth Sugar Bowl appearance. The Razorbacks are 12-22-3 in their bowl history, including a 20-17 victory over East Carolina in last year’s Liberty Bowl.

• Ohio State is 19-22 in its postseason history and 5-3 in eight previous BCS games. The team had dropped three straight bowl games, including two BCS title game appearances, before last year’s 26-17 victory over Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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