CINCINNATI (AP)—Oklahoma was on the phone with an offer.
The Sooners were looking to fill out their nonconference schedule with a game against an up-and-coming program. With Brian Kelly as coach, the Cincinnati Bearcats seemed like a good fit.
But, would they agree to come to Norman?
In a heartbeat.
The Bearcats (1-0) will play the fourth-ranked Sooners (1-0) on Saturday, the first game in a home-and-away series. Oklahoma will play at Cincinnati in 2010, the one condition that the Bearcats set for the series.
"We took this game on as an opportunity to measure ourselves against the very best," Kelly said. "When we came here, our first goal was to get our football team to change their mind-set relative to how they compete and what they compete for. It's about championships.
"The second level, now that we've broken the Top 20 last year, is to measure ourselves against the very best in the country, that next progression. We know we can win a championship in the Big East. Now we want to know where we stand on a national stage, and there wasn't a better opportunity for us out there than to go to Norman, Okla."
It's a trip they're eager to make.
In Kelly's first season, the Bearcats tied their school record with 10 wins and finished with their highest ranking at No. 17. Their shot at a Big East title ended when they lost to West Virginia 28-23 on Nov. 17.
That first season marked the Bearcats as a team on the rise. Now, they want to see if they can pull off an upset that would suggest they have arrived.
"Going against one of the top teams in the country, this would do a lot for us coming out with the win," receiver Dominick Goodman said. "It would put the program where it needs to be at."
It would be considered a big upset by everyone except the Bearcats. They return the nucleus of the team that finished No. 17 last season. The only significant change is the switch at quarterback from Ben Mauk to Dustin Grutza, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for another in an opening 40-7 win over Eastern Kentucky.
Told that the most recent line showed Cincinnati a 21 1/2 -point underdog, defensive end Connor Barwin said, "It rose! I heard it was 21 yesterday. So it's already going up. You like that. Hopefully they think that of us down there, too."
The Bearcats seem to be enjoying their long-shot status and their chance to see how they stack up against one of the nation's top teams on the road. The attitude of their head coach has rubbed off on them.
"This is fun," Kelly said, his eyes widening. "This is what you do this for. You want to coach a team to go to Oklahoma. You want to go into that environment. It doesn't get any better than that. If I'm going to spend 80 hours here during the week, I'd like to go play somebody that really it means something—not that the other games don't."
When a reporter asked a question that started off with, "Suppose you win …," Kelly replied in mock indignation.
"Suppose you win? Suppose you win?" he said. "Again, we're measuring our program against the best. We're here to win championships. We need to find out where we are. And I want to be able to take our football team, go to Oklahoma and measure it against the best. I'll have better answers for you after the game."
By agreeing to visit Cincinnati in two years, the Sooners have taken a much different approach than Ohio State. The Buckeyes were scheduled to visit in 2012, but informed Cincinnati after its breakthrough season that it wanted to opt out of the game unless it was moved to Columbus. Cincinnati went along with the switch, and will get $1 million from OSU for the game.
Asked why the Sooners would be willing to visit but not Ohio State, Kelly chuckled and thought for a few seconds about what he'd like to say.
"Uh, how about—now you might all fall down on this—how about no comment?" Kelly said.