Ohio State-Arkansas Stat Preview

 HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

OHIO STATE HOPES TO END SEC HEX
WITH WIN OVER ARKANSAS IN NEW ORLEANS

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

However you slice it, Ohio State has a lot at stake in terms of school pride and conference pride when they take on Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.

*Ohio State is 0-8 it's last eight tries against the SEC, including relatively uncompetitive losses to Florida and LSU in BCS Championship games. The final scores weren't the same, but the 'mid-third quarter' scores were basically identical. Ohio State was crushed by Florida, and rallied garbage time to create the illusion of not being crushed by LSU.

*The Big Ten was HUMILATED by the SEC on New Year's Day, with Alabama obliterating Big Ten co-champion Michigan State, Mississippi State embarrassing Michigan, and Florida beating Penn State by double digits thanks to its game breaking defense (five takeaways).

If Ohio State loses tonight...particularly BADLY, then this is more than a black eye for the Big Ten. It's arguably the knockout punch that keeps them from being respected for years. They'll be just a made-for-TV league that can play exciting games against each other, but is overmatched by the REAL powers of the sport down in the SEC.

How can you take Ohio State seriously as a national power if they can't win as a favorite tonight...on the heels of playing so poorly in those other high profile games? How can you take the Big Ten seriously with a loss here, an 0-5 New Year's, and what would finish as a 2-6 bowl performance for the whole postseason? Rigged September schedules help them get eight teams into bowls...and they go 2-6. Oh, Nebraska will be joining the Big 10 next year, and THEY laid an egg in a bowl too.

Ohio State has A LOT to play for.

What about Arkansas? They're a relative newcomer to the high profile SEC wars, with Bobby Petrino lifting the program well above where Houston Nutt had it. Will this be a statement-making night for the new kids on the block? Or, will a deer-in-the-headlights phenomenon strike them at the worst possible time? Ohio State is hoping they see some antlers. Arkansas is hoping what Alabama and Mississippi State did from the SEC West to the Big Ten was a sign of things to come.

Let's crunch some numbers...

Before looking at our standard indicator stats for this game, we want to spend a moment reviewing the SEC/Big 10 clashes from this past Saturday. Was it really as bad as it seemed?

PENN STATE/FLORIDA: The Nittany Lions were driving for the possible winning touchdown in the final moments, so the game was much closer than a 13-point decision would suggest. Penn State was probably about 5th best in the Big Ten this year (different sets of ratings will give you different rankings). Florida was probably about 6th best in the SEC (same deal). You have to give the nod to the SEC because they won the game...but we're not ready to say that this game can be used to suggest the SEC is light years better than the Big Ten. We're in the middle of the pack with big name programs having down years relatively speaking. It was a tight, competitive game until that pick six in the final minute inflated the score.

MISSISSIPPI STATE/MICHIGAN: Michigan is probably 7th or 8th best in the Big Ten, and was trending badly with a 2-5 straight up record down the stretch. One of the wins was in overtime vs. Illinois where they were fortunate to grab the W. There are a lot of teams who would have crushed this horrible Michigan defense in a bowl game. Motivated Miss. State came out breathing fire and never let up. It's basically universally accepted that the SEC has better depth than the Big 10. It's not automatic that a blowout down low on the ladder means that the same things will happen with the teams at the top. Michigan was a bowl caliber team in September (wins over UCONN and Notre Dame), but probably not any time after midseason.

ALABAMA/MICHIGAN STATE: This is where Ohio State has to worry. Michigan State was a tri-champion with Wisconsin and OSU in the Big Ten, while Alabama lost to Auburn...and LSU...and South Carolina. Yet, head-to-head on a neutral field, this was a massacre. Alabama led 28-0 at the half and coasted to a 49-7 rout that probably could have been worse. Total yardage was 546-171. The SEC is top heavy...and Alabama would likely win most other major conferences. Can we say Michigan State was a pretender? They beat Wisconsin by 10 points. We agree they were probably the worst talent-wise of the tri-champs. They weren't supposed to be 42 points worse than Alabama.

We'll say it this way...the Big Ten's 0-5 performance on New Year's Day wasn't as bad as it seemed. They were underdogs in all five games to begin with. And, Northwestern and Michigan aren't New Year's caliber teams by any means. It's kind of a scandal that THEY get to play on such a special day when so many better teams don't. But, a conference isn't judged by what its 7th and 8th best teams do. It's just by what its best teams do. Wisconsin put up a valiant fight in a cover vs. TCU. Michigan State was overmatched completely. January 1st wasn't as bad as it seemed. Michigan State's loss made it bad enough.

SUGAR BOWL
OHIO STATE (11-1) vs. ARKANSAS (10-2)
Ohio State: 18th offense, 2nd defense, 63.5 plays, 68th schedule
Arkansas: 10th offense, 34th defense, 67.3 plays, 19th schedule
ATS Records: Ohio State 9-2-1, Arkansas 9-3
Vegas Line: Ohio by 3, total of 56.5
Notebook:
Both of these teams were great against the Vegas spread this year. Arkansas made a run at superpower status without being priced that way. Ohio State kept running up the score in blowouts after a history under Tressel of calling off the dogs. This helped them cover at a rate nobody thought possible for a conservative program.

The Buckeyes look like they have an edge statistically, until you get to strength of schedule. Ohio State's offense and defense rankings average out to 10, while Arkansas is at 22. But...factor in strength of schedule, and you can make a very good case that Arkansas has the better composite. The Hogs jump way up in offense (which isn't a surprise because they have a pro-style offense with a future NFL quarterback). Defense gets close to even.

Now, consider the possibility that Ohio State's schedule was even WORSE than that 68th ranking would suggest. The Big Ten isn't sparkling in the bowls. Ohio State missed Michigan State anyway in the schedule rotation. And, Miami of Florida from the non-conference slate lost their bowl badly to Notre Dame.

The numbers are alerting us that there's a reasonable chance Arkansas is the better team here. Vegas has Ohio State as the favorite.

As handicappers, you have to determine how much 'big game experience' is going to matter. The stats will be a red herring if Arkansas panics under pressure and throws four or five interceptions. Tressel goes to big bowl games every year, he's not going to roll over and hide under the bench. We've been working very closely with our sources go get a read on the Hogs heading into spotlight. JIM HURLEY will have a major release based on what he's learned.

You can purchase tonight's BOMBSHELL here at the website with your credit card a few hours before kickoff. We have some bonus basketball too, with big play possibilities in Connecticut/Notre Dame, Arkansas/Texas, one of the Missouri Valley quartet, plus Bucks/Heat, and Spurs/Knicks in the NBA.

Don't forget that all football through the Super Bowl is affordably priced in a special package. You'll get the full playoff slate starting with this weekend's WILDCARD games (look for previews Saturday morning) that will also include the remaining bowls up to and including the Auburn/Oregon game in the BCS Championship. Call the office at 1-800-323-4453 if you have any questions.

Back tomorrow with NFL notes that will wrap up the regular season and set up the WILDCARD games. Thursday and Friday will be devoted to additional bowl coverage (previews and summaries from the Orange and Sugar Bowls). Make sure you're with us EVERY DAY in the NOTEBOOK so you know what's REALLY going on in the world of sports!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

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