Hogs make return to national elite in Sugar Bowl

Updated: January 2, 2011, 3:02 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- The Arkansas Razorbacks knew their season was hanging in the balance.

They'd blown a double-digit lead against Alabama. They'd lost a high-scoring shootout to Auburn.

Stumble again, and say hello to another trip to a consolation bowl.

"We started talking about how we can't let this decide the rest of our season," linebacker Jerry Franklin said. "That was the turning point."

The No. 8 Razorbacks won their last six games -- three against ranked teams -- to earn the first BCS bowl appearance in school history. They'll face No. 6 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl on Tuesday night.

Arkansas (10-2) hasn't been to a major bowl since the 1990 Cotton Bowl, when it was still considered one of the most important postseason games and the Razorbacks were a member of the now-defunct Southwest Conference.

Perhaps it's only appropriate that Arkansas is making its return to one of college football's biggest stages in the Big Easy, a city of resilience and rebirth.

The Razorbacks were up 20-7 on defending national champion Alabama in the second half, but lost 24-20. They went back and forth with Auburn before fading in the fourth quarter of a 65-43 loss, the highest-scoring game in Southeastern Conference history. Six days later, holed up in a hotel getting ready for their next game, the players made a vow.

"We said after losing to Auburn, 'We just can't lose any more. We're not going to let anyone pick our destiny," linebacker Jerico Nelson said. "All we could do is win the rest of our games."

That's just what they did. They won on the road against a pair of Top 25 teams, SEC East champion South Carolina and Mississippi State. They earned a Sugar Bowl invitation with a victory over LSU in the regular-season finale.

"When we came to camp this year, we set our expectations high," third-year coach Bobby Petrino said. "We stumbled a couple of times along the way, but we stuck together. We fought our way back in it."

Petrino built a national powerhouse at Louisville, and he appears on course to do the same at Arkansas. He sees no reason why the Razorbacks can't be the sort of consistent contender they were back in their Southwest Conference days, when championships and major bowls were the goal every season.

"This is what we want from our program," he said. "To be a top-20 team every year, get in the top 10 and find a way to win a national championship. I think all of our players now believe that. When you first start talking to them, I think they hear you but they don't really believe it. What's fun about our football team now is that they really believe it."

Ohio State (11-1) might be having some doubts after the Big Ten's dismal performance on New Year's Day.

The Buckeyes' conference went 0-5 Saturday, with three of those setbacks coming against SEC teams -- by an average of 31 points! The Big Ten looked totally out of its league in the Capital One (Alabama 49, Michigan State 7) and the Gator (Mississippi State 52, Michigan 14). Penn State gave a better showing in the Outback but still lost to Florida 37-24.

The last hope is Ohio State, which hardly has history on its side.

The Buckeyes have never beaten an SEC team in a bowl, losing nine in a row.

"That's a crazy stat," Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor said. "I'm not even sure how long it's been. Going back to the 1970s or something like that, we haven't beaten the SEC. That's a long time."

There's plenty of turmoil swirling around the Big Ten co-champions. Pryor, three more offensive starters and one other Ohio State player already have been suspended for the first five games of next season after it was learned they had sold rings, uniforms and awards for cash and gotten discounts on tattoos.

But the NCAA, after getting lobbied by Sugar Bowl officials who didn't want any luster taken away from their game, allowed the five to play in New Orleans.

That's just fine with the Razorbacks.

"We were hoping they would play," Franklin said. "Going into a bowl game, you want to play the best. You don't want to play a team that doesn't have its starters, the guys who've been playing all season. So we're excited they get to play."

Besides, this is a chance for the Razorbacks to show off just how much improvement they've made on the defensive side, especially since giving up those 65 points to Auburn. They're 33rd nationally in yards allowed, a major step up from last year's No. 89 ranking.

"The Arkansas defense has never gotten any respect," Nelson said. "It's like coach Petrino says, 'It's a show-me world.' We've got to show what we can do."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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