Every college football team has a turning point in its season — a single play, series or entire game that changes the way the team views itself.

Don’t be surprised if Ohio State’s before-and-after moment comes Saturday against Cincinnati. By the time the Bearcats exit the Horseshoe, OSU should know what kind of team it has.

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Is Ohio State the battering ram that dropped 28 points on Florida Atlantic in the first 8:10 of the opener? Or is it the little lamb that turned vanilla offensively, getting outscored 21-17 the rest of the way? Is the defense drop-dead dangerous, as it appeared for most of the first half against the Owls? Or is it the tamer beast that looked average for large portions of the second half, when second-teamers speckled the field?

A case can be made that Ohio State is a playoff team, based on the way it looked in the first quarter against FAU. The case weakens when considering the Owls initially were overwhelmed by their environment, looking like a middle school team playing against the Dallas Cowboys in AT&T Stadium. FAU eventually settled down and solidified its defense, giving the Buckeyes funky scheme looks that they neither anticipated nor adjusted to particularly well.

Ohio State’s ups and downs were to be expected. Season openers register high on the ugly meter. But now the Buckeyes switch from checkers to chess. Make a dumb mistake early against Cincinnati and lose your queen, possibly hastening a shocking checkmate.

Guess wrong — although coaches hate to admit they guess, preferring “estimated deduction” — and a game can slip away quickly.

“As you get into the season later on and tendencies start to build, you have all that data (to work from), but these first games … makes it challenging,” Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley said.

The danger with Cincinnati, then, is fear of the unknown. The Bearcats did not show their full hand in an opening 24-14 win against UCLA.

“They will have something we haven’t prepared for,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “They will have had all summer to game-plan, and so we’ll have to adjust and move on from there.”

Cincinnati definitely poses a risk. Emotionally, the Bearcats will be amped to win for coach Luke Fickell, who played and coached at Ohio State.

At the same time, Ohio State has an opportunity to make a big statement, to come out of Saturday saying, “We just dominated a team that would finish middle of the pack in the Big Ten, coached by a former OSU player and coach who had his players motivated and well-prepared.”

Either way, whether the Buckeyes break down against the Bearcats or beat UC to a pulp, Saturday will be a litmus test. Another one comes Sept. 28 when the Buckeyes play their second road game, at Nebraska. But something tells me the Cincinnati game will be more revelatory.

For one thing, it’s still early enough that the OSU coaches and players don’t know what they have. They’d like to think 28-0 is who they are when no one is looking, but maybe they’re more the fast-starting 100-meter sprinter who gets caught at 75 yards?

“We know where our weaknesses are,” Hafley said.

Cincinnati knows where to find them, too, but can the Bearcats take advantage enough to deliver a Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson knockout blow?

So much intrigue — more than I can remember for an in-state opponent. The Buckeyes last lost to an Ohio school (Oberlin) in 1921, one year before Ohio Stadium opened. That one left a mark. This time, OSU has a chance to make its mark.

roller@dispatch.com

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