Through this pandemic, Ohio State has never been closer to its Big Ten brethren. The Buckeyes were both a legend and a leader in advocating for the conference to get back on the field. Woody Hayes would have been proud his program griped long and loud about playing football in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.
Now comes the Big Ten's ongoing version of separation anxiety.
As the conference kicks off its season Friday, No. 5 Ohio State has seldom, if ever, been this much better than the rest of the league. "Head and shoulders" doesn't begin to describe it. "Other-worldly" might be more accurate.
There are Heisman Trophy candidates and All-Americans all over the field. The recruiting pipeline is stocked. Coach Ryan Day is 16-1 entering his second full season. He already has a Big Ten title and College Football Playoff berth on his resume.
"[Last season] that was one of the best college teams I've been on the field with," said Nebraska coach Scott Frost, whose team opens its season Saturday at Ohio State. "They could have easily won everything."
The same goes for this season. The Buckeyes are -300 favorites to win the Big Ten for a fourth straight season, according to William Hill Sportsbook. (The next-best team in terms of odds is Wisconsin at +650.)
The last Big Ten team to dominate the league to such a degree was Woody's Buckeyes, who won at least a share of the title 10 straight years 1968-77.
If form holds, a third CFP berth in five years awaits. Ohio State will be favored in every game, the closest line so far being -13 in two weeks at Penn State. Michigan State is 1-6 against OSU since 2013. Jim Harbaugh continues to languish against Ohio State, 0-5 and counting at Michigan.
The biggest obstacle might be COVID-19 itself. If the coronavirus was holding back Ohio State and the Big Ten previously, then that's the only thing that can stop it now. Day was asked about the likelihood of playing nine straight weeks without a bye and ensuring COVID-19 doesn't interfere.
"To look at it like it's been a success right now would be premature because we have two more months [the season]," Day said. "This is not a week-to-week thing. It's all the way until January. We might good for two weeks, three, weeks, four weeks, five weeks. We stub our toe and have an outbreak and lose [out on playing] games. We can't afford to do that."
Day has stressed not letting down for a moment, not at the grocery store or a restaurant. One slip up without a mask could mean infection. In the Big Ten's stringent protocols, that means a three-week quarantine.
There is uncertainty over COVID-19 but certainty that this Ohio State dynasty will keep chugging along. When Day took over for Urban Meyer after the 2018 season, he was the first Ohio State coach since 1945 to get the job without previous experience leading a program.
Nothing changed. If anything, the Buckeyes have gotten better considering the way Meyer went out. There is stability. Day played quarterback under Chip Kelly, then an assistant at New Hampshire. Mesh Kelly's revolutionary zone spread debut at Oregon a decade ago with Meyer's concepts, and it's hard to screw up offensively.
"The great thing was I had really learned a lot from Urban here and kept so many things in place," Day said. "Certainly, we did change some things and reframe some things. But we kept a lot of structure the same. Because of that, it was fairly seamless."
That's what makes the back end of this season so intriguing. The year is just beginning for the Big Ten, Mountain West and later the Pac-12. The ACC, Big 12 and SEC are halfway through their seasons. As such, there is the obvious concern over the Big Ten champion being fairly considered for the CFP.
"That was very, very important in this whole process," Day said. "Guys come here to play for championships."
That's clearly what drove Day -- all that talent. Fields may still win the Heisman despite not having taken a snap yet. The offensive line is a veteran group. Preseason All-American guard Wyatt Davis and cornerback Shaun Wade opted out then back in when the Big Ten decided to play.
Without a fall season, the junior transfer from Georgia almost certainly would have opted out to get ready for the NFL Draft.
It's fitting that Ohio State and Nebraska are meeting in the opener. Day and Frost were the loudest advocates for a fall season. Call it desperation, sure, it showed. With the season kicking off in earnest the second week of September without the Big Ten, Day fired off this tweet.
Frost became Day's brother in arms, taking up the cause and threatening to explore "other options" outside the league if the Big Ten didn't play a fall season.
"We certainly fought for it," Frost said. "We fought for it because we thought it was the right thing to do, to have football. We thought we could do it in a safe manner. We weren't satisfied with the decision to not play, kept trying to find ways to get it done. We're grateful to Ohio State for doing the same thing."
Their traditions match up, which explains the long, loud push to get to this point. On the field, though, the two programs do not match up at the moment. Ohio State has won the last five meetings by an average of 34.4 points.
"We didn't know if we were going to get to play or if we were out there practicing for nothing," Frost said. "It's been a battle. Ohio State was the one that led the battle."