There will be a noticeable step up in competition and spotlight when Ohio State plays its Big Ten opener at Michigan State Saturday.
The eyes of the college football nation will be on East Lansing with ESPN's College GameDay in town. Expect an overarching story to be on the Buckeyes being undefeated but ineligible for postseason play.
But the Spartans will represent the biggest challenge for Ohio State this season. The Buckeyes have only played one FBS opponent this season – a 1-3 California team they held off 35-28.
The Buckeyes have yet to put together a game where both the offense and defense have performed well. That's not as concerning against the likes of UAB or Central Florida. But against Michigan State, it could become an issue. The Buckeyes' offense struggled greatly against the Spartans in a 10-7 loss a season ago.
When Ohio State has the ball:
When the Buckeyes played the Spartans last season, quarterback Braxton Miller was sacked nine times. He had only 56 yards passing and minus 27 rushing. Ohio State's only score came from backup quarterback Joe Bauserman in the game's final seconds. But now Miller is a Heisman Trophy candidate and is given more freedom to run the offense.
"He's a bigger, stronger guy than he was last year," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio told reporters this week. "He was a brand new freshman in a system. Now he has all of last year, spring and summer practices, four more games and a new offense under his belt. He's a much more experienced player. He's more in control. He's seen more as a leader."
The running game should get a boost this week. For the first time this season, the Buckeyes will have running backs Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde. In Ohio State's first two games, Hyde carried the ball 24 times for 109 yards. Hall, who can be used more as a receiver, has 34 carries the past two games for 192 yards.
The Spartans come into the game with the sixth-ranked total defense in the nation. From the defensive line to the secondary, Michigan State is loaded with the kind of NFL talent that could shut down the Buckeyes if Miller struggles again.
When Michigan State has the ball:
Despite a 3-1 record, Michigan State hasn't played especially well on offense. They barely beat a rebuilding Boise State in the season's first week, got challenged by Eastern Michigan and lost 20-3 to annual underachiever Notre Dame.
Offensively, the Spartans have relied on running back Le'Veon Bell. Prone to leaping over defenders, the 244-pound Bell has plowed his way to 610 yards and five touchdowns this season. Ohio State's young linebacker group will be test by Bell if he gets past OSU's defensive line.
Bell, who is from Columbus, had 50 yards against the Buckeyes last year. For the Spartans to win, he'll have to improve on that number. Against Eastern Michigan last weekend, Bell had 253 yards rushing on 36 carries.
The Spartans start junior Andrew Maxwell at quarterback. In his first year as a starter, Maxwell has the same amount of interceptions as touchdowns and is completing just under 57 percent of his passes.