SEC: 2011 Sugar Bowl preview

Arkansas makes its first BCS bowl appearance in school history against Ohio State on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Here’s a quick preview of the Allstate Sugar Bowl:

WHO TO WATCH: Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett became just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to pass for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons. He’s thrown touchdown passes this season to 10 different players, so he obviously likes to spread the ball around and doesn’t lock in on one receiver. He doesn’t need much time or room to get rid of the ball with his quick release and strong arm, and he can squeeze completions into tight windows with a flick of his wrist. The rap on Mallett early was that he hadn’t won a big game, and his two interceptions in the second half of the Alabama loss were disappointing. But he came back strong to lead the Hogs to wins over three Top 25 teams (South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU) during the month of November, and two of those were on the road.

WHAT TO WATCH: For all the talk about the classic matchup between Arkansas’ explosive offense and Ohio State’s rock-solid defense, how the Hogs’ improved defense fares against the Buckeyes’ offense will likely be the key to the game. Arkansas went from 89th nationally in total defense in 2009 to 33rd this season, and defensive coordinator Willy Robinson’s unit stepped up in several clutch situations. The Hogs gave up fewer bigger plays and were much more consistent defensively. Their only real lapse was the fourth quarter against Auburn when the Tigers erupted for 28 points. Keeping the Buckeyes under 30 points will be a chore. Ohio State comes into the game averaging more points (39.4) than Arkansas (37.3).

WHY WATCH: The Big Ten gets one last chance for redemption this bowl season after going 0-for-5 on New Year’s Day, three of those losses coming to SEC teams. More importantly, the Buckeyes get another chance to shake their SEC curse in bowl games. They’re 0-9 against the SEC in the postseason, and their past two outings against Florida and LSU in the 2006 and 2007 BCS National Championship Games weren’t even close. For Arkansas, this is a chance to announce to the college football world that they are indeed going to be a player under Bobby Petrino at the national level. And if you’re looking for a compelling quarterback matchup, Mallett facing Terrelle Pryor is about as good as it gets.

PREDICTION: Arkansas 34, Ohio State 24. The Buckeyes will be ready for this game. They’re sick and tired of hearing about how the SEC has owned them in bowl games. Sometimes, the truth hurts. The Hogs have the offensive balance to poke holes in the Buckeyes’ defense, which is allowing just 13.3 points per game this season. And whereas the Hogs didn’t have a running game to protect leads and keep defenses honest at the beginning of this season, they do now. They’ll salt this one away with Knile Davis wearing the Buckeyes down in the fourth quarter.

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