College Football Writer
Those involved in a college football game know it is not a time commitment measured in a tidy three-hour broadcast window that most view and consume the sport through.
There are countless hours of prep work leading in, with virtually no time off to pause and reflect from August until signing day in February. The rigors of travel for road games remain a drag even with charter flights, and then there’s the emotional toll that takes place every game, no matter the end result.
It’s difficult enough to perform at a high level in front of tens of thousands in person (and millions at home) and even more straining mentally and physically for all involved to do it for upward of four hours if you want to wind up on the right side of that final score.
So perhaps it was no surprise Saturday to see the look on Ryan Day’s face as he slowly strode toward a table set up for his postgame news conference in the wake of Michigan’s 30-24 triumph. It was the Ohio State coach’s third straight loss in the series, a rivalry so ingrained in the sport that it is known simply as The Game. It would have surprised nobody had he simply collapsed in his chair even as he attempted to put on a brave face following a one-score loss to a top-three opponent, a contest that felt all too similar to the previous two blowouts to the Wolverines.
Though Day is still several months from turning 45, he could have aged a decade from the weight of the loss as he sat down to take questions from the media. In telling those assembled that he felt sick following the contest, the pain and emotion were wildly evident in every word he spoke to underscore that sentiment.
“To come up short is certainly crushing. Not just because you invest your whole year in it, but you know at Ohio State what this game means. So there’s a locker room in there that’s devastated,” Day said Saturday, his words audibly punctuated by the dichotomy of Michigan players screaming in celebration a few yards away in the Big House tunnel. “It wasn’t for lack of effort. But we didn’t win the rushing yards, and we didn’t win the turnover battle, so you’re not going to win the game.”
The simple fact is that Day and the Buckeyes didn’t just lose The Game this year — ending their Big Ten championship hopes and also likely their College Football Playoff hopes in the process — but they suffered through a result that was simply the latest addition to a compounding Michigan problem that has cropped up in a place that hasn’t seen or dealt with one since the late 1990s. A stray subpar result to that team up North is one thing. But two blowouts plus a third loss at the hands of an interim head coach who was far more aggressive and confident? Well, that’s another thing entirely.
So now, as Day and Ohio State sit at a crossroads as the program enters a very different era in college football in 2024, the two intertwined entities have to start asking themselves a simple question: Where do the Buckeyes go from here?
Ryan Day talks about Ohio State’s loss to Michigan
After getting practice schedules set and recruiting visits lined up over the course of December, Day’s first order of business will probably be to have a long conversation with associate athletic director for sports performance Mickey Marotti. The program’s veteran strength and conditioning coach has been widely considered one of the best in the business going back 25 years to his time at Notre Dame and was a key holdover in the transition from Urban Meyer in 2019.
But something is clearly going to have to be changed or tweaked in terms of the approach the Buckeyes take moving forward. The team has done just fine when it comes to overwhelming the vast majority of opposition on the docket, but as Day’s record against better competition indicates — 1-3 against Michigan, 1-4 in the CFP — his players need to reach another level so that those losses start to become wins on the only stage that matters.
It’s not lost on many that a central theme of those struggles against elite opposition has centered on toughness. It’s what prompted Day to call out Lou Holtz, of all people, back in September for questioning it about this Ohio State side. Truthfully, with the passing of time, it has looked like something worth examining internally.
If it doesn’t, the narrative will not only grow but deepen. The blueprint that teams such as Michigan and Georgia and Clemson have used to emerge victorious against the scarlet and gray will be something that Big Ten rivals will lean into as well.
“I told the receivers this whole week, like, you’ve got guys back there [on Ohio State’s defense] who want to put on the Louis V, the $1,000 outfit and you want to act hard,” Wolverines receiver Roman Wilson said Saturday. “But when we’re out there, you’re not hard. I see the film. You’re not tough.”
“When we’re out there, they’re not hard” – Michigan’s Roman Wilson
There are more than a few head coaches around who would plaster such a quote around the hallways of the Woody Hayes Center as a visual reminder to the players of what the outside world thinks of them. If they can’t take such biting criticism personally for the coming 365 days, perhaps even deeper issues lie at the heart of OSU’s struggles in this area.
Then there are the questions about the personnel that Day has brought onto the roster.
The most intriguing will undoubtedly center on quarterback in the wake of Kyle McCord’s first season as a starter. The junior has put up solid enough numbers (65% passing, 9.1 yards per attempt, 24/6 touchdown/interception ratio) but still far below what you would expect someone in his position to post, especially given the presence of one of the best receivers in school history in Marvin Harrison Jr., who has been his teammate since high school.
McCord’s predecessors not only had better stats, but they had the appearance of being the future first-rounders they would eventually become. Of the 16 NFL scouts in attendance at the Big House over the weekend, none were likely to walk away thinking McCord was on a similar track. Certainly not after throwing two costly picks, one of which led to a Michigan touchdown in what would be a six-point victory, the other sealing the loss on the final drive.
“It’s one of those games where you put everything in, and it hurts to come up short,” McCord said. “The worst part is that we kind of have to sit back now and see how everything shakes out — it’s out of our control.”
Would Day look to the transfer portal to not only find a quality backup — the team is likely to need one given pending departures — but potentially some competition for McCord? Though the floodgates do not officially open until next week, it’s possible there are options to do both. Veteran Mississippi State signal-caller Will Rogers has already announced his intentions to play elsewhere come 2024, as has Texas A&M’s Max Johnson (with two years of eligibility remaining).
What does the future hold for Ohio State coach Ryan Day?
There’s also some intrigue worth monitoring at Texas, where former OSU quarterback Quinn Ewers has indicated he could return for 2024 to develop further in the eyes of NFL scouts. That could make things interesting in Austin, where highly touted backups Maalik Murphy and Arch Manning are waiting their turns.
If the latter ever hinted at potentially hitting the portal to find a destination to play right away next season, you would have to think Ohio State would be interested. The combination of the five-star’s physical skills combined with the way Day develops quarterbacks would be tantalizing to think about, and even the Manning family would have to admit that being the guy in Columbus in a 12-team playoff era allows you to both win at a high level while at the same time being developed by one of the best at churning out first-round signal-callers.
It’s a pipe dream that likely has at least one Ohio State message board discussing ad nauseum, but there’s logic behind any potential union for both sides.
There’s also the broader question that Day has to face with regard to recruiting in general.
It was not lost on many that the quarterback who has delivered two daggers into the heart of Columbus the past two years — J.J. McCarthy — was once heavily recruited by Ohio State but opted to go to Michigan when Day pivoted his focus in the class of 2021 to McCord.
Then there was defensive back Rod Moore, who hauled in the game-sealing interception to set the Big House alight with joy and equally drive the Buckeyes to despair. He grew up an hour away from the Horseshoe in Clayton but didn’t get much of a sniff from the home state power.
Yet there he was Saturday, literally calling game.
‘I just called game!’ – Rod Moore on his timely interception
You can chalk that up to perhaps overlooking or misevaluating a three-star and tip your hat to the Michigan staff for not doing the same, but this has become a bit of a trend at Ohio State that has only continued to accelerate.
In the past, the Buckeyes recruiting classes would naturally be stocked with the best the state had to offer, as the likes of Jim Tressel and Meyer plucked whomever they wanted with an elusive offer. Yet they both still found the time to add plenty of local players who maybe didn’t carry the five-star label, helping form the backbone of some pretty key national championship teams.
Just take OSU’s 2024 recruiting class, ranked second overall by 247Sports and nipping at the heels of top-ranked Georgia. It is mighty impressive at face value and features the most five-stars for any team in this upcoming cycle. Yet of the 24 players currently committed, just seven hail from Ohio itself.
Among the top 10 players in the state for 2024, only three are set to head to Columbus. Kentucky has two of them pledged to Mark Stoops, while Penn State, Michigan, Purdue and Oklahoma have also made headway far behind the banks of the Olentangy.
It might be difficult, given the variances in recruiting, to say Ohio State needs to be a little less national with its approach to the high school ranks.
But at this point, everything must be examined.
If this doesn’t present a moment to crack open the inner workings at OSU to see what can be improved upon, the calls will only increase for somebody else to come in and do it to rid the school of its current problems against elite competition.
No matter what ends up transpiring over the course of the upcoming weeks as the 2023 campaign comes to a close, there is little doubt the heat has intensified on both Day and just about everybody under his purview.
It’s not often Ohio State is in this position, but the college football world will certainly be watching with great interest as the program attempts to start coming up with answers and figuring out where it goes from here.
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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