NEW ORLEANS — Jim Tressel and Bobby Petrino dutifully posed in front of the Sugar Bowl trophy Monday, forcing smiles and mumbling a few pleasantries to each other while the cameras clicked away.
Surely there was no mention of what happened on New Year's Day.
That would have wiped the grin right off Tressel's face.
The Big Ten is still stinging from an embarrassing performance on the first day of 2011, when its teams put up an oh-fer in five bowl games. Making matter worse, three of those defeats came against the Southeastern Conference, the other half of that perennial debate over where they play the best college football: the North or the South?
No. 6 Ohio State can soothe some of the sting by winning Tuesday night's Sugar Bowl against eighth-ranked Arkansas in yet another Big Ten-SEC matchup.
Tressel would prefer not to put the entire conference on his team's back, especially since the Buckeyes (11-1) have never won a bowl game against an SEC team in nine previous tries.
"We always say if you ever want to become the best, you play against the best," said Tressel, who has an 0-3 bowl record against the SEC in his decade as the Buckeyes' coach — including back-to-back losses in the national championship game.
There's little doubt the Big Ten is feeling a bit of inferiority complex against the SEC, which already has claimed an unprecedented four straight national titles and has shot at making it five in a row when Auburn faces Oregon in the BCS championship game next week.
Ohio State will be the final Big Ten team to play this season, relegated this time to one of the BCS backup games. But there's always a bit of a subplot when these two conferences get together.
They are the two richest football-playing leagues, rolling in dough from lucrative television deals. For at least the past two decades, they've ranked 1-2 in attendance, so there's clearly no lack of passion on either side. And, of course, the regional debate over who's the best has raged for much longer than that, a latter-day civil war played out every Saturday from Ann Arbor to Tuscaloosa.
This past Saturday, it was all SEC.
Alabama blew out Big Ten co-champion Michigan State 49-7. Mississippi State routed Michigan 52-14. Penn State was the only team to put up much of a fight, but the Nittany Lions fell to Florida 37-24. For those who can't get their hands on a calculator, that's an average margin of 31 points.
"I didn't really see many of the games," Tressel said. "Obviously, I saw the results. Does it add something more to our challenge? I don't think so. Arkansas is enough of a challenge on its own. What someone else did or didn't do is probably going to have very little effect on how we do against Arkansas."
Still, he's certainly aware of his personal record against the SEC.
"I'm not tired of hearing about it," Tressel insisted. "It's a reminder to me of just how good the SEC is in football. We are playing another great one in Arkansas."
Petrino, the Razorbacks' third-year coach, wants to keep the trend going. But, like Tressel, he's not chalking up a win for Arkansas (10-2) just because of conference affiliation.
"I don't think any of that matters for this game," he said. "What you see in this game is a great football team from Ohio State that's a tremendous challenge for us. What happened in other games, who we play throughout the year, you kind of put that behind you and just focus on going out and trying to win this game."
Ohio State has tried to keep looking forward. Yet it's kind of hard when everybody keeps bringing up the past — especially that 0-9 postseason record against the SEC.
"The past is what it is. There is nothing you can do about that. This year is a new year," offensive lineman Bryant Browning said. "This game, I feel that we have a veteran bunch and we are really ready to study hard and work hard so we can go out on the field and give it our best. I was here for a couple of losses to SEC teams. You are not trying to play your last game and lose."
Besides, the Buckeyes have been fretting about bigger concerns that beating the SEC. Star quarterback Terrelle Pryor and three other offensive starters will get to play in this game, but they've already been suspended for the first five games next season, the NCAA-imposed punishment for selling off memorabilia and receiving discounts on tattoos.
Over the weekend, Pryor talked with the media for the first time since his punishment was announced, reiterating his vow to return to the Buckeyes for his senior season — even if he'll miss nearly half the games — but stirring up another tempest when asked about critical comments by ESPN analyst and former Ohio State QB Kirk Herbstreit.
"I don't worry about what Kirk Herbstreit says, to tell you the truth," Pryor said. "Did he beat Michigan?"
The Buckeyes were 0-3-1 against their biggest rival during Herbstreit's career. They've won all three meetings with Pryor as their quarterback.
"As we talk with any of our kids in terms of giving their opinions on things, I've always felt that sometimes those are best left unsaid," Tressel said, before acknowledging that "is difficult sometimes for kids because they spend so much of their time hearing people's opinions of them."
The 58-year-old Tressel also denied speculation he might retire after the Sugar Bowl, blaming a website for spreading false information.
"Recruits are calling asking if it's true or not," he said. "The rumor is a waste of time, but this world is an ever-evolving waste of time. I don't know when people have time to spend so much time reading all this stuff."
Then, he jokingly added, "It's better than the alternative: the day they fire you."
In New Orleans
Ohio State (11-1) vs. Arkansas (10-2)
Tonight, 6:30 p.m.
TV: ESPN Radio: AM-700
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