NEW ORLEANS - Jim Tressel and Bobby Petrino dutifully posed in front of the Sugar Bowl trophy yesterday, 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 still is 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 tonight'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 because the Buckeyes (11-1) are 0-for-9 against the SEC in bowl games.
"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 inferior against the SEC, which has won four straight national titles and has a shot at making it five when Auburn faces Oregon in Monday's BCS championship game.
Ohio State will be the final Big Ten team to play this season, relegated 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 television deals. For at least the past two decades, they've ranked 1-2 in attendance, so there's 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. 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."
Still, he's certainly aware of his personal record against the SEC.
"I'm not tired of hearing about it," Tressel said. "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.
Besides, the Buckeyes have been fretting about bigger concerns than beating the SEC. Star quarterback Terrelle Pryor and three other offensive starters will play in this game, but they've been suspended for the first five games next season, the NCAA-imposed punishment for selling off memorabilia and receiving discounts on tattoos.