In a way, Ohio State’s conference schedule begins on Saturday.
No, Cincinnati has not been admitted to the Big Ten. The Buckeyes’ conference schedule opens officially next week at Indiana.
But consider the game against Luke Fickell’s Bearcats a quasi-Big Ten game. The Buckeyes do.
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All week, coaches and players described UC as more comparable to the teams they’ll be facing throughout the fall than the typical instate school that has served as mere fodder for Ohio State for almost a century.
It’s hardly a secret that the Buckeyes’ last lost to another Ohio team came in 1921, the year before Ohio Stadium opened. Few of the vanquished 41 teams even had a prayer.
Cincinnati does. The 2002 Bearcats shoulda coulda upset the national championship-bound Buckeyes if not for a couple of late drops in the end zone. This team, Fickell’s third at UC, is a 16-point underdog, but no one should dismiss Cincinnati’s chances.
The Bearcats are experienced on both sides of the ball, though the season-ending injury to star safety James Wiggins is a blow. On offense, quarterback Desmond Ridder and running back Michael Warren II former a potent duo. UC beat UCLA 24-14 for the second year in a row in its opener Aug. 29.
“Going into (the week), the emphasis was that these guys can compete with anyone in the Big Ten,” Ohio State right guard Wyatt Davis said. “That’s what we’ve been saying. And especially with what they did against UCLA, they’re trying to get after guys and they’re going to come in with a lot of energy.”
Ohio State got off to a blistering start against Florida Atlantic in its first game with four quick touchdowns and then wobbled to a 45-21 victory in Ryan Day’s first game as permanent coach.
Fickell said the Buckeyes’ start against FAU was more relevant than the final 3½ quarters.
“We've got our hands full,” Fickell said. “It was over before it started in a lot of ways, but I think they were pretty, pretty vanilla in a lot of things. Defensively, they didn't have to do a bunch of things. Offensively, I don't know that they had to throw a lot of things at them. But you saw them be very efficient, very explosive. It was 21-0 in 3-4 minutes.”
Day and Fickell don’t know each other well. Day arrived at Ohio State as offensive coordinator following the 2016 season just after Cincinnati hired Fickell, a longtime Buckeyes assistant and 2011 head coach.
But Day knows about Fickell’s legacy and reputation at Ohio State and knows what to expect on Saturday.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for coach Fickell and what he's built down there,” Day said. “I think it's a very strong program, in great shape, so we know they are going to come in here hungry.”
Fickell has downplayed his emotions regarding this game and any talk of a rivalry between the programs. But he canceled all media availability for Bearcats players this week. This isn’t just another game for UC.
Nor is it for Ohio State. Nobody is acting as if this is the biggest game of the season for the Buckeyes. But the Buckeyes’ history of superiority over their instate brethren is a matter of pride. And Cincinnati is clearly a step up in competition from FAU.
If Ohio State is to become the kind of national championship contender it believes it can be, this game will give a major indication how realistic that is.