- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Eight FBS teams call Ohio home, but only one program has been nationally relevant for decades. Ohio State is the state's premier program, having won 13 national championships and 33 Big Ten championships. It's produced seven Heisman Trophy winners.
But for the first time in recent memory, the Buckeyes face a legit challenger for the title of best in state. Cincinnati has surged under third-year coach Brian Kelly, winning the Big East last season and rising to No. 8 in the BCS standings, nine spots ahead of the Buckeyes, who already have two losses. While the teams don't meet again until 2012, the two programs have been compared a lot during the past few weeks.
Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg and Big East blogger Brian Bennett break down the debate in the Buckeye State.
Adam Rittenberg: We've already looked at Iowa-Cincinnati and Penn State-Pitt. Now let's get to a topic that has been debated for a while this season. A Cincinnati radio station even got into the act to mock Ohio State after the Buckeyes' loss to Purdue. What's your take on these two teams?
Brian Bennett: Adam, Cincinnati fans are getting a bit chesty after decades of playing the role of little brother in Ohio. Well, maybe more like little second cousin than little brother. Look, there's no question that the Buckeyes have a William Taft-sized edge on the Bearcats in history, tradition, resources and facilities. But college football is becoming a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport, and it's hard to argue against the fact that Cincinnati is having the better season this year.
Which team is better? That's debatable. But let me ask you this: If given the choice, would you rather have Terrelle Pryor, who looks ill-suited for Ohio State's system, or Tony Pike expertly running the spread? Or, for that matter, Bearcats backup Zach Collaros, who's a dual-threat guy himself?
Rittenberg: Cincinnati knows exactly who it is on offense, and the results show every time the Bearcats take the field. The system is bigger than any player, as Kelly can plug in just about anyone at quarterback and get tremendous results. Ohio State, meanwhile, hasn't established an offensive identity since Pryor became the starter. The Buckeyes keep experimenting with the spread, the pistol formation, a pro-style set, etc., as they try to mold the offense around Pryor. I wish they'd just pick something and stick with it, even if it's an option-based offense. I do think Pryor will get better over time. He's just so talented.
Ohio State's defense knows exactly who it is, and it's an extremely talented group. I know UC's offense is tremendous, but do the Bearcats face any defenses like Ohio State's in the Big East?
Bennett: Well, a couple of weeks ago, I might have said South Florida, but the Bulls have since been exposed. So it's true that at least so far, the Bearcats haven't faced any shutdown, stout defenses. The last time they did, in fact, was against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and that didn't work out so well.
But I do think this is a better, more well-rounded offense than even last year. And if you can fairly ask if Cincinnati has seen a defense like Ohio State's, I can fairly counter by asking if the Buckeyes have faced anything as good as Kelly's offense. USC wasn't exactly airing it out. Purdue runs some spread and managed to beat Ohio State, and I think we'd both agree that the Boilermakers aren't quite in the Bearcats' class. And on the flip side, don't count out that Cincinnati defense, which statistically has been better than the one in Columbus.
Rittenberg: I can't believe you, Bennett. You're totally neglecting the mighty Toledo Rockets, the nation's 14th-ranked offense that managed to put up exactly zero points against Ohio State back on Sept. 19. I see how it is. Now that Cincinnati is highly ranked and competing for state bragging rights, you totally neglect the little guy. Jim Tressel wouldn't approve.
In all seriousness, no, Ohio State hasn't faced an offense that resembles Cincinnati's, though the Buckeyes really did a nice job against USC until the final drive. It's too bad Illinois never showed up this season, as the Illini could have given Ohio State a nice challenge. But Kelly's scheme would really test Ohio State, especially in the secondary. Kurt Coleman is one of the best safeties in the country, but corners Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence would have their hands full. Ohio State's pass rush would need to be on point, but I have full faith in the Buckeyes' defensive line.
OK, Brian, you're on the spot. Who wins this game? And perhaps, more importantly, could Cincinnati win in Columbus? I don't think the Bearcats enter many environments nearly as hostile as The Shoe.
Bennett: Does this mean we have to debate Toledo vs. Akron next?
You know, if they played every year or even if they played 100 times this year, Ohio State would probably win the majority of them. But in a one-shot deal, this year, no matter where the game was played, I'd cast my lot with the Bearcats. Not only is this a really good team, but it's a team full of guys who grew up in Ohio but weren't considered good enough to play for the Buckeyes. Combine their talent with motivation, and I think that would be enough to change the state's power structure for one day, at least.
Who would you take?
Rittenberg: I agree the Bearcats would have no trouble getting up for this game. Cincinnati clearly has the better offense, but I don't think UC has seen a defense like Ohio State's. Keep in mind the Buckeyes play a similar style to Virginia Tech, which beat Cincinnati pretty handily in the Orange Bowl. Location also would make a difference. Cincinnati wins at Nippert, but I don't see the Buckeyes losing this game in Columbus.