Last season at this time, the Buckeyes were preparing for their Alamo Bowl match-up with Oklahoma State. But during bowl preparations, they were dealt a big blow when Smith was suspended for two games for accepting $500 from an OSU booster.
Ohio State responded with a 33-7 shellacking of the Cowboys, but the damage was done. Could Smith ever be trusted as the Buckeyes' leader? Was he mature enough? Was he ready to live in the fishbowl as OSU's starting quarterback? Should Justin Zwick be OSU's starter in 2005?
Those questions lingered throughout the offseason and even into the early stages of the 2005 season.
But at some point, everything changed for Smith. He quickly earned back the trust of his teammates and coaches, and slowly began to earn the trust of the fans.
Following OSU's 25-22 loss to Texas on Sept. 10, Smith was named Ohio State's starting quarterback. Zwick had not played poorly against Miami University and Texas (where Zwick and Smith split time), but head coach Jim Tressel felt Smith was the best man for the job going forward. It proved to be a smart move by Tressel.
It took Smith a few weeks to knock off the rust, but once he did, he established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and maybe even the country.
Smith finished the regular season with impressive statistics. He threw for 1,940 yards (62.2 percent completion percentage), 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions. His quarterback efficiency rating of 158.45 was first in the Big Ten, seventh in the country, and second all-time at Ohio State behind Bobby Hoying in 1995 (163.43).
"I'm not even sure how they figure that stuff out, but it sounds good," Smith said of his QB rating. "The only number that really matters to me is 9-2 and that's two too many."
The 6-1, 215-pound Smith also did a lot of damage on the ground this year with 545 rushing yards (4.4 per carry) and 11 rushing touchdowns.
One of the reasons for Smith's improved play was his work ethic. He put in long hours in the offseason and during the season. He could usually be found in the weight room, or film room. It was something that did not go unnoticed by OSU head coach Jim Tressel.
"Troy is a guy who is anxious to learn," Tressel said. "When you're a teacher you love people who are interested in learning. He avails himself of opportunities to sit with coaches, whether it's his high school coaches, or his position coaches, or wandering in and sitting down with one of the defensive coaches. I've enjoyed many a conversation with him. He's always open to what you'd like to share with him. That's the mark of a good learner. Anytime you have to look through that maybe you didn't do it as well as you would have liked, shame on you if you didn't lean from it. I think Troy has handled things very, very well and I'm sure he's learned a lot."
Smith has already accomplished a lot during his brief OSU career. He has led the Buckeyes to a pair of victories over Michigan with two of the best performances by an OSU quarterback in the history of the rivalry.
But one thing he has yet to do is play in a bowl game. That will change on Jan. 2 at the Fiesta Bowl when he leads OSU into battle against Notre Dame.
"Yeah, I don't think it will be any different though," Smith said. "I think a game is a game, regardless of wherever you play it."
But Smith admits that it will be gratifying to play in a bowl game, especially with what went down last year.
"It means a lot, because this is another game when you and your teammates get to jell," he said. "Last year, those seniors that left, I wasn't able to play with them in their last game. So, it does mean a lot."
Smith says his attention to detail is a big reason he was able to have such a quality regular season.
"I don't take things for granted," he said. "Got to make the best out of every situation. This year I've become a more complete quarterback with every snap."
Following the 17-10 loss at Penn State on Oct. 8, Smith elevated his play. He seemed to be a different quarterback the second half of the season. He was playing with more confidence and everything seemed to click for him.
"I can't pinpoint a game, but I would probably say mid-way through the season," Smith said. "I picked up the studying of the film and stuff like that. So, I would say mid-way through the season (everything clicked)."
Smith admits he daydreams about how OSU would fare in a playoff system. The Buckeyes have two losses, but would be one of the favorites in a small tournament.
"Oh yeah, I always think about that," Smith said. "But those things happen for a reason and helped us become the team that we are now. I think everything is OK the way it is. We don't need a playoff."
Smith was asked if he's grown more as a person, or player, over the last year.
"Probably both," he said. "I owe that to the coaching staff here because I sat down with them and had a meeting about things off the field, and on the field. They had some great things that helped me out. They told me some great things that helped me become the person that I am now.
"I don't regret anything that happened in the past because it helped me become the person that I am now. I can't say I like this Troy Smith better, because I wouldn't be who I am without the things that happened in the past. I take everything in stride."
Smith says one of the most important aspects of maturity is learning that his teammates trust him and he cannot let them down.
"When you have an understanding that it's not just you – in everything that you do – the best will come out of you, in any situation," he said.
Smith knows he can't take all the credit for his big season. The receivers played well, tailback Antonio Pittman had a big year, and most importantly, the offensive line got the job done.
The Buckeyes' offensive line was the target of criticism in 2003 and 2004, but this year, it was regarded as one of the top units in the Big Ten.
"To tell you the truth, I don't think it was that bad (in 2003-04)," Smith said. "People are just going to find someone to get down on. I don't think they've come that far. I think they've been playing phenomenal the whole year around."
Smith can always be found praising the big guys up front. It's almost like he has made a conscious effort to always mention the offensive line and how well it is playing.
"I don't like being hit," Smith said. "Those are the guys, first and foremost, who keep guys off me. So I feel as if they need it, they deserve it, they have to have it. And if no one else is going to give it to them, I'm going to be the first guy who will. We've got guys up front who are captains and I believe in all of them."
Just like in 2004, the highlight of Smith's season was his play in the Michigan game. The Buckeyes were trailing this year's contest in Ann Arbor 21-12 midway through the fourth quarter, but Smith calmly led them on a pair of clutch touchdown drives and a 25-21 victory. He finished the day 27 of 37 passing for 300 yards and one touchdown. He added 11 carries for 37 yards and another score.
But the two drives at the end of the game are what OSU fans will be talking about for years to come.
"One thing I was feeling – and the other 10 guys in the huddle were feeling the same way – was that, ‘We can't lose this game,'" Smith said. "Regardless of wherever it is, we knew we could not lose that game. Flat out, that was it. That was the common factor within everybody. Everybody in the huddle was calm and cool and we went down and did what we had to do."
The Buckeyes looked down and out when UM took the two-score lead, but Smith held the team together. If there were any questions about his leadership, they were answered on that afternoon in Michigan Stadium.
"I think that means everything in the world because throughout life in every situation, if you're able to stay even-keeled, if you're able to stay the course, I think that says a lot," Smith said. "Not just for one person, but for all 11 guys on the field working together as a group in a calm and collective way, I think that says a whole lot."
The play most everyone will remember from the UM game was Anthony Gonzalez's leaping 27-yard reception over a Wolverine defender in the game's final minute. It gave OSU a first-and-goal and Pittman scored the game-winning touchdown two plays later.
"I think it's tremendous progress on (Gonzalez's) part because not a lot of people know him as a high-point guy," Smith said. "One with the ability to go up and get the ball as he did. I believe in Tony the whole way around. If anything, I think I could have threw it a little harder so he would have a chance to run under it and get into the end zone, as opposed to jumping over the guy. But I wouldn't take the play back.
"I was just trying to keep the play alive as long as we can and just try and make a play. Fortunately I was able to. Gonzalez made a great play, the line held everybody off as long as they could and Gonzalez made a great play."
Regarding the match-up with Notre Dame, Smith is expecting a tough battle. The Fighting Irish are known more for their offense this year, but Smith says they have a quality defense as well.
"They're good. They're a good defense," Smith said. "Strong, they've got great speed. Their corners and their secondary have good speed. Their linebackers are physical; they can run also. Their defensive line does a lot of slanting and moving, so they've got some athleticism in the front four guys. All around, they're a pretty good team."
Ohio State wanted to be in the Rose Bowl this year, but playing in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame is the next best thing.
"I think it will be an exciting game," Smith said. "Just being bowl-eligible is great. Playing in a BCS bowl is even better. Notre Dame does add a little twinkle to everybody's eye because of their tradition. It should be a great game."
It will be a battle of two of the nation's top junior quarterbacks in Smith and ND's Brady Quinn, a Dublin, Ohio, native.
"I think he's a great quarterback," Smith said of Quinn. "I admire tough guys. I admire guys who can run around on the field. As a quarterback, I see things that other people may not see. All around, I think he's a great guy and a great quarterback."