By Stewart Mandel, SI.com
Though I'm a Cincinnati native, I don't pretend to have grown up a Bearcats football fan. I'm not sure many other natives did either. For most of my childhood, UC football was largely a subject of mockery. The Bearcats garnered minimal media attention, played in a small, antiquated stadium, once lost 81-0 at Penn State and gave away two-for-one ticket coupons at area Skyline Chili restaurants like a Six Flags promotion.
Therefore, I've watched from afar these past few years in mild amazement as the Bearcats have built themselves into a competitive, BCS-conference program that finished last season ranked in the top 25.
With a largely uninspiring slate of national games scheduled for Saturday, I decided to stay in New York and watch Cincinnati's trip to the big stage at Oklahoma -- and do so with some fellow Cincinnati transplants. The local UC alumni network is holding a viewing party Saturday at an Upper East Side sports bar. Any group of people who appreciate the wonder that is Montgomery Inn barbeque sauce will undoubtedly make for good game-watching company.
But this will not be a purely recreational outing, either. The Oklahoma-Cincinnati game genuinely intrigues me from a national perspective. While I assume, like I'm sure most of you do, that the Sooners will win by a healthy margin, it will be an interesting litmus test for both teams.
While Sam Bradford, DeMarco Murray and the rest of the Sooners' offense is a proven commodity, the Bearcats do present some challenges defensively. They ranked 30th nationally last season, and both DT Terrill Byrd and CB Mike Mickens were preseason All-Americans. If Bradford and Co. steamroll these guys -- get ready for another long year, Big 12.
However, the more interesting matchup will take place on the other side of the ball. As I mentioned in a preseason article, Oklahoma's Achilles Heel the past few years has been its pass defense. Enter Cincinnati, with its no-huddle spread offense. QB Dustin Grutza took a backseat to transfer Ben Mauk last season but is back for his third year as starter and has two very talented receivers in Dominick Goodman and Marty Gilyard.
If the Sooners' defense manages to dominate the Bearcats, it could be a sign that Bob Stoops' team has what it takes to put an end to its recent postseason shortcomings. For Brian Kelly's Bearcats, it's an opportunity to make a statement as a program.
"We know we can compete for a championship in the Big East," he said. "Now we want to find out where we stand on a national stage."
And I want to find out where all these Bearcats football fans came from.