Before we get to Ohio State as Big Ten football beast -- and all signs point to the Buckeyes running the conference table for a second straight season -- consider tailback Rod Smith.
He's the former Harding standout who arrived in Columbus so big and fast he generated comparisons to former Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George.
Smith's first two seasons weren't close to that level, although he showed flashes. He's caught four career passes for a 17.5-yard average and a touchdown. He's rushed for 331 yards while averaging 5.4 yards a carry. He has never lost a yard in 61 carries. He's played on special teams and recorded one tackle.
Smith has sprinter's speed combined with a 6-3, 232-pound body. He would seem set for a big junior season and the second under coach Urban Meyer.
But there are glitches. Meyer wasn't sure Smith was his kind of player before Smith proved it to him last year. Then, Smith's unspecified violation of team rules last winter got him suspended for Saturday's season opener against Buffalo. That will cost him a big opportunity given starting tailback Carlos Hyde is suspended for the first three games for allegedly assaulting a woman.
When Smith does return, what does Meyer want?
“Consistency. A work ethic. He has not had that. Those two areas are what is missing in his career,” Meyer said.
“His consistency and work ethic have improved. It's not toughness, speed and size. He has all that. It's consistency and work ethic.
“In the spring, I saw it at times. I saw it last fall at times. He had some incredible opportunities. You don't just get those. You have to earn them. He earned some last year.”
Smith will try to earn more opportunities on an Ohio State squad poised to challenge Alabama for the nation's best team. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 2 to the Crimson Tide's No. 1 in both major polls.
Ohio State went 12-0 last season but was ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions. Instead, Alabama won its second straight national championship.
Do the Buckeyes wonder about what might have been?
“Nah. I'm not there,” quarterback Braxton Miller said. "If I'm there, I'll think about the things I can do to help us win. ... They worry about them. We worry about us.”
With the uncertainty surrounding Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel (the NCAA is investigating allegations that last year's Heisman Trophy winner was paid for signing autographs, a rules violation that could get him suspended), Miller has become a Heisman favorite. Last year he threw for 2,309 yards and 15 touchdowns, rushed for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Meyer said Miller did that last year mostly because of his superior athleticism. Now he's become a true quarterback.
Does Miller find all the hype distracting?
“I just play football. I have this God-given ability. I'm good at it. If you get to know me, I'm just chill, laid back. You feel like I'm your brother. I ain't nobody …
“That's just how I am. That's how I was brought up.”
Ohio State, which comes in with the nation's longest winning streak, will try to restore Big Ten luster lost while the SEC became the nation's dominant league.
Ohio State projects to have the Big Ten's best offense and second-best defense. It has a fairly easy nonconference schedule (its toughest challenge comes at unranked California), and should dominate the Leaders Division and reach the Big Ten title game.
The Buckeyes' biggest overall test will come at the end of the regular season, when they play at Michigan. The Wolverines might be the Big Ten's second-best team -- quarterback Devin Gardner follows Denard Robinson as a big-play threat (he was the league's offensive player of the week in two of his five starts last year) -- although they'll be pushed by Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern in the Legends Division.
Northwestern could be the Big Ten's surprise team -- if you can be a surprise after going 10-3. The Wildcats have a dynamic quarterback rotation with Kain Colter (the dual-threat guy) and Trevor Siemian (a big-time passer). Running back Venric Mark might be the Big Ten's best. He rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 TDs last year.
Nebraska has its own dual-threat quarterback in Taylor Martinez. If he finally finds passing consistency and stops turning it over, the Cornhuskers' offense might be unstoppable. The big key -- can they regain their defensive mojo after allowing 27.6 points, the worst ever under coach Bo Pelini?
Michigan State should have the Big Ten's best defense. It returns seven starters from a group that allowed just 16.3 points last year. The key is getting better quarterback play.
Then there's Wisconsin, which has won three straight conference titles, then lost its coach when Bret Bielema switched to the SEC and Arkansas. New coach Gary Anderson worked wonders at Utah State. Can he do the same thing when the Badgers visit Ohio State? It helps to have the Big Ten's best 1-2 running punch in Melvin Gordon and James White.
Where do Indiana and Purdue figure in this? Most projections have them behind Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State in the Leaders Division, although IU might get past Penn State -- in Year 2 of its four-year NCAA sanctions penalty -- if it can beat the Nittany Lions in their Oct. 5 conference opener at Memorial Stadium. A 4-4 conference record, perhaps even 5-3, is not beyond reach.
The Boilers are a big unknown under new coach Darrell Hazell. They'll get a chance to show their potential Saturday when they play at Cincinnati, a contender for the new American Athletic Conference under new coach Tommy Tuberville. Win that game and all things are possible. Lose and, well, it's an unforgiving schedule.