Buckeyes or Bearcats?

Published 3:06 am Thursday, September 24, 2009

CINCINNATI — While Ohio State fans up in Columbus debate whether their team is the best in the Big Ten, folks down south are asking a much different question three games into the season: Who’s the best team in Ohio?

Buckeyes? Or Bearcats?

In years past, it would have been a ludicrous question. But Cincinnati’s impressive 3-0 record and Ohio State’s spotty 2-1 start have left the two teams nearly dead-even in this week’s Top 25 poll. Ohio State is No. 13, followed by Cincinnati.

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Bearcats? Or Buckeyes?

“Hey, if we ever have to strap it on with them, we’re going to win,” Cincinnati running back Isaiah Pead said Tuesday, not even flinching when the question was raised.

Head coach Brian Kelly coached at Grand Valley State in Michigan and Central Michigan before coming to Cincinnati, so he knows all about Ohio State’s lore and how fans get wrapped up in the program’s history. He also knows it stings when a Cincinnati player hears that a fan chose to watch Ohio State lose to Southern California 18-15 on Sept. 12 instead of watching the Bearcats win again on a different TV channel.

“I think as long as you’re in the state of Ohio and you’re not looked at as an equal or partner, you’re going to play with a chip on your shoulder,” Kelly said Tuesday. “And I’m not saying we should be looked at as an equal or a partner. But our players sense and feel that every day by who they talk to and who they see at the mall and, ‘Did you see the Ohio State-USC game?’ ‘Yeah, did you see our game?’

“So they’re going to carry that (chip), and I’m certainly not going to tell them to change the way they think because as a coach, I kind of like that role that we have.”

Pead knows well that his opinion will be anathema to the Buckeye fans who inhabit every corner of the state. He grew up in Columbus, where he topped one of Ohio State’s greatest players: Pead broke two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin’s career rushing record at Eastmoor Academy, then had to choose between the two schools for college.

Buckeyes? Or Bearcats?

“I liked the situation they have here,” the sophomore running back said. “They were an up-and-coming team and I love the coaches. The coaches were nice, whereas the OSU coaches were, ‘If you come here, you come here. If you don’t, then that’s fine, we’ll get the next guy.’ I felt these coaches, they cared about you.”

Not even a little lobbying by Griffin himself could sway Pead. Griffin was a frequent topic of conversation in Pead’s home because his grandfather played little league baseball and high school football against him in Columbus. Pead grew up reading the yellowed newspaper clippings of those encounters.

“I know a lot,” Pead said. “Going to OSU games growing up, Archie would be there and I would talk to Archie.”

Now, Pead and the Bearcats are getting some clippings of their own.

The defending Big East champions beat Oregon State 28-18 on Saturday, ending the Beavers’ streak of 26 straight victories against nonconference teams in Corvallis, a stretch that spanned 13 years. It was impressive enough to jump the Bearcats right behind Ohio State in the poll.

The Buckeyes struggled to beat Navy at home — they had to thwart a 2-point conversion try in the closing minutes — then lost to USC at home before rebounding with a 38-0 win over Toledo. Their struggles have dropped them from No. 6 in the preseason to one spot ahead of Cincinnati.

The last time another Ohio college was ranked ahead of Ohio State was Nov. 13, 2004, when Bowling Green was No. 25 and the Buckeyes were unranked.

The Bearcats and Buckeyes won’t play again until 2012. That game was originally scheduled to be played at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, but the Buckeyes decided to invoke a contract clause and opt out of it. They agreed to play the 2012 game as long as it was in Columbus, as well as another game there in 2014.

The best team in Ohio this season?

“I would say Cincinnati,” Pead said.

With no game to decide it, the answer to the state’s percolating football question remains a matter of opinion.