There's the fact that leading receiver Corey Brown already has twice as many receptions as he did a year ago when he split the team lead with two other wideouts. There's the fact that players like Johnathan Hankins and Christian Bryant have developed into All-Big Ten level players. There's even the 5-0 record, a mark that puts the Buckeyes two games ahead of where they were last season at this time.
But a subtle sign of development came at Michigan State on Saturday afternoon. And to realize just how big it was, one has to listen to assistant coach Mike Vrabel talk about what happened last year when the Buckeyes blew a 27-6 lead on the way to a stunning loss last year at Nebraska.
"Admittedly, I think our quarterback going down, our guys on defense felt like, ‘This is it,'" the OSU defensive line coach said Monday. "They said that at the game. Whether that was some young guys or whatever, the quarterback goes down, and he was the one carrying the load. We were getting stops and forcing them to kick field goals, then those things start to snowball and pile up on you."
Indeed, Ohio State's 34-27 loss last year against the Cornhuskers – this weekend's opponent in a return prime-time showdown Saturday in Ohio Stadium – hinged on the leg of Braxton Miller.
The OSU freshman was having one hell of a Big Ten road opener in Lincoln last year, having completed 5 of 8 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown while adding 91 yards rushing against a flummoxed Nebraska defense.
But with Ohio State holding a 27-13 lead on the Huskers midway through the third quarter and the Buckeyes in the early stages of what looked like a promising drive, Miller ran over the right side and went down with what appeared to be an ankle injury sustained on a cut.
The Buckeyes had to punt, Nebraska scored on the ensuing drive, senior backup Joe Bauserman went 1 for 10 with an interception the rest of the way and Nebraska steamrolled to victory.
"I don't know that I've seen a game change like that that I've been involved in," OSU head coach Luke Fickell said at the time.
While Miller's sudden injury obviously affected the offense – OSU had only three first downs the rest of the way – Vrabel's Monday admission might have showed just how young the Buckeyes were on defense a year ago.
That has obviously changed, as most of the Buckeye defensive corps returned intact this season. And for a tangible look at how the mental stability of the team has improved, all one has to do is look at last week's win vs. Michigan State.
Miller went out twice during the game with injury. The first time, he was hit out of bounds on the team's first drive, but backup quarterback Kenny Guiton came in to finish off the possession with a touchdown. Later, Miller fumbled while suffering what initially looked like a serious knee injury early in the fourth quarter, but he ended up being all right, and the OSU defense responded by keeping Michigan State to a field goal, the difference in a 17-16 win.
Some of that could surely be attributed to maturity, while another reason players talked about Monday is a newfound confidence in Guiton, who has impressed both players and coaches with his development in his junior year.
"We have all the confidence in the world in Kenny," left tackle Jack Mewhort said. "You guys saw him go in on Saturday and score a touchdown for us. God forbid that anything would happen to Braxton, but Kenny Guiton can step up and play his position and we're very confident in him. If something like that does happen, we can keep rolling."
That's an important factor considering the bumps and bruises Miller has taken so far in the season. He's the Buckeyes' most dynamic player, which resulted in him taking 46 touches – 23 runs, 23 passes – in the MSU win. He's averaging 42.2 combined runs and passes per game, meaning he'll continue to take shots.
While some of his hits – eight, head coach Urban Meyer said, during the Michigan State game – are the result of mistakes by others or bad reads on option plays, there's no plan in place to curtail Miller's touches.
"There's no doubt he's the fuel in our engine," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "He's a tough kid. He's going to get banged. He's going to get hit and he's going to feel it in here on Sunday, but I think when you get him out in space he's got a chance to avoid some hits.
Either way, the Buckeyes know that if something does happen to Miller, they've proven they have the resolve to respond better than they did last year in Lincoln.
"I don't think that should be an issue," senior linebacker Etienne Sabino said. "Braxton is a big part of our team, but we have other guys to step up. As a defense, we should have stepped up even more last year. But like I said, last year is last year and this is a new year."