Barring complete insanity (that of course we all will be rooting for) this upcoming weekend, all signs point to a trip to New Orleans for the Buckeyes to face one of two SEC opponents. Given Ohio State's recent history against both the SEC and in New Orleans, it would appear to be a worst case scenario for the Bucks, and that's to say nothing about Jim Tressel's well known inability to restrain himself in the Big Easy, stumbling about in a drunken haze, dressed in only boxers and dress socks, attempting to avoid an open warrant for arrest stemming from an incident at Big Ted's Oyster Shack. Shameful really.
Regardless, the most probable outcome as of now is for Ohio State to play against either the Arkansas Razorbacks (should Auburn win in the SEC Championship game), or the Gamecocks from the University of South Carolina (should USC upset the Tigers). Neither of these teams is what anyone would call a "sexy" opponent, but both of them will represent a tough test for the Buckeyes, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Let's start out by taking a look at OSU's most likely opponent, the Razorbacks.
Bobby Petrino is now in his third year as head coach at Arkansas, and his team (now ranked 7th in the BCS at 10-2) has made steady improvement since going 5-7 in 2008. Though Arkansas still struggles somewhat on the defensive side of the ball, they have evolved into a spread offense juggernaut and are now ranked 9th in the nation in total offense, averaging 489 yards and 37 points per game.
All of that production starts with Ryan Mallett. I used to work at an auto supply store and I remember how one of my (very stupid) coworkers tried to convince me that Mr. Mallett would usher in a new era of Michigan dominance against Ohio State. Well obviously that didn't happen, as he wisely decided to opt out of the Rich Rodriguez era after his freshman year. At Arkansas, he has blossomed into a very confident and consistent pure pocket passer who finished his season with 3592 yards passing, 30 TDs, and only 11 INTs. He throws one hell of a deep ball, and Petrino will likely look to test OSU long early and often.
The Razorbacks also have a good running back in Knile Davis, whose evolution this season strongly mirrors that of Boom Herron. More or less an afterthought in the first four games of the season, in the last 8 games he has averaged 132 yards per game and really given their offense the extra dimension they needed to take their game to another level. OSU absolutely has to gameplan for him because if he is overlooked he could take over the game himself.
The defense is interesting. Poor against the run, and decent against the pass, they can run hot and cold. Against a good Texas A&M offense they only allowed 17 points. Against Auburn the next week, they gave up 65. Overall they aren't horrible, and do their job well enough as far as the offense is concerned.
Personally I think this is a tough matchup for Ohio State. Arkansas would welcome a shootout against OSU, and that is the last thing the Buckeyes want to get drawn into against these guys. With that said, OSU also has a history of doing very well against drop back QBs: Travis Howard (as pointed out by Alex yesterday) has been a huge boost in the secondary, and Chekwa roaming at the star position could be a very effective weapon against Mallett. If the Razorbacks are forced to rely on their running game to get first downs, they probably won't be able to put up points consistently enough to win. It will be interesting to see how Heacock and Fickell attack them.
South Carolina Gamecocks
If South Carolina can somehow pull off the upset of the year against Auburn in the SEC Championship game, they will likely be rewarded with a trip to the Sugar Bowl to face OSU. This is a really bipolar team that, earlier in the season, game Auburn a good game and beat (an admittedly overrated) Alabama team. This is also a team that got absolutely destroyed by the aforementioned Razorbacks.
Offensively they are led, in a sense, by Stephen Garcia, who is actually having a pretty decent season. He's only thrown 9 interceptions this year and is completing close to 66% of his passes, but for whatever reason still doesn't seem to have the full confidence of his head coach. In any event, he is not the kind of guy who really scares anyone. Alshon Jeffery, their star WR, does though, and has the ability to break a game open by himself. The USC rushing attack is led by Marcus Lattimore, who more or less epitomizes USC football. This guy has three games of 175 yards or more, and four games of 55 yards or less.
One area where USC is very consistent is their defensive line, which is possibly the best in the country. They get a ton of penetration (especially through the middle), and have four players with at least 4 sacks. They're actually better than OSU against the run, allowing only 93 yards per game. Which is good, because their secondary is a mess. They've given up 300+ yards five times this year, and part of their success against the run is a product of teams not really even bothering with the ground game and just shredding them through the air.
If I were Jim Tressel I would immediately go after these guys deep. Don't worry about setting up the run or hitting a bunch of short to medium passes to get TP's confidence up; if he can complete just one pass deep, that could totally take USC out of their game. When the Gamecocks put together a complete offensive performance they can be a very good team, but this has rarely happened. The most effective way to beat these guys is to minimize mistakes, and to keep their offense off balance.
Overall, whoever OSU faces in the bowl game should be a challenge simply by virtue of them being an SEC team playing in the south. But the key for both games will be to field a defense that can slow down a potentially dangerous passing game, and an offense that can eat up a ton of clock. Arkansas especially will be serious business, but OSU will rightly be favored in either game and if TP can be the TP he was against Oregon and Tressel can stay away from the French Quarter, we should do just fine.