Ohio State begins conference play this week, which is sort of like starting a new semester. The grades from the previous term aren't erased, but there's still the feel of a fresh start.

Ohio State begins conference play this week, which is sort of like starting a new semester. The grades from the previous term aren't erased, but there's still the feel of a fresh start.

The way OSU fans grade, the Buckeyes have two A's and one F at this point, but they can bring up their GPA significantly with a win against Illinois. That's because the last time the Fighting Illini came to Columbus, they walked away with a 28-21 victory over the then-top-ranked Buckeyes.

The man in charge at Illinois is the same man who led Illinois that day in 2007. However, Ron Zook has a combined record of 8-9 since then.

The quarterback is the same, too: the wonderfully nicknamed Isiah "Juice" Williams.

What's changed is that Illinois no longer possesses what experts in the sports media refer to as "swagger."

You have swagger when you're so confident in your abilities that you expect to defy expectations.

John Wayne had a classic, quiet swagger. Jack Nicholson speaks swagger as a second language. Samuel L. Jackson crushed swagger, sprinkled it on his cereal and ate it for breakfast.

But at Illinois, that's gone, for the simple reason that Zook continues to cement his reputation as a great recruiter and just a so-so coach. It's said that he brings highly skilled players to campus, but fails to get the most out of them when they're actually on the field.

Think of it this way: If Zook was a beauty-pageant contestant, he'd look great in a swimsuit, but he would set his hair on fire with a flaming baton during the talent competition.

(Not coincidentally, Zook was actually named the "Fittest College Football Coach" this year by the Orlando Sentinel, perhaps because of that famous photo of Zook water-skiing. Please, wait till the end of this article to Google it, but do look it up.)

What OSU fans need to remember is that reputations are usually a funhouse-mirror view of reality. They reflect something that's true, then exaggerate it.

Buckeye coach Jim Tressel is said to be too loyal to his seniors, right? But this is the man who demoted quarterback Todd Boeckman last year and defensive back Anderson Russell this year.

Terrelle Pryor was the quarterback who couldn't throw as a freshman, remember? But he led the Big Ten in passing efficiency last season.

So if Zook is regarded as a coaching lightweight, so what? Illinois is battling to get their swagger back, and the Buckeyes must be just as thirsty for a win if they're going to down Juice and his teammates.

OSU Fast Fact

7-1

Coach Jim Tressel's record in Big Ten openers. The loss was in 2004 at Northwestern.

Huddle Up

The Buckeyes dropped to 13th in this week's Associated Press poll, despite their 38-0 win over Toledo, and losses by USC and BYU.

But it's too early to panic about the polls. For one thing, the AP standings aren't part of the BCS equation. It's also clear that no team outside of Florida has solidified their position in the minds of voters. OSU, for instance, was ranked anywhere from sixth to 22nd.

What should be a concern is that this drop could reflect the cumulative effect of the Buckeyes' losses against ranked opponents.

So OSU can't just win anymore - they need "style points" against teams like Illinois.

That won't be easy. The Illini, coming off a bye week, are well rested. Plus, quarterback Juice Williams has 642 yards total offense and six touchdowns in his last two appearances against the Buckeyes.