Commentary: Ryan Day navigating rough waters into 6th season at Ohio State

Another Ohio State football season is in the books.

What did we just watch?

I asked after the Buckeyes lost at Michigan, and the Cotton Bowl loss to Missouri offered only more questions.

Ohio State’s 2023 football season is proving to be harder to evaluate than most because of the postscript that is still being written involving who will come and who will go in early January between transfers and NFL draft decisions.

Traditionally, college teams develop in a linear sort of way.

Players arrive as freshmen, learn, grow and find their path.

Maybe half of them develop into starters. Some become stars then move on to the NFL.

Then the cycle refreshes with new players for fans to fall in love with all over again.

Even with the recent increase in transfers across the country, that was still the case for a core group, especially at a place like Ohio State where the players who leave before their eligibility is up typically have not been able to earn significant roles fro the Scarlet and Gray.

For a long time, transferring out of Columbus and making it to the NFL was very rare, but that is becoming less the case because talented young players are more apt to exit in search of other opportunities, especially when they get passed up by younger players with the same pedigree or better coming out of high school.

This year a new precedent was set with not only a starter but the quarterback opting to transfer right after the Buckeyes’ first loss of the season ended their national title hopes.

That in of itself could constitute a crisis as the position that is called the most important in sports is particularly vital to Ohio State’s success under Ryan Day, whose arc as head coach of the Buckeyes now seems to have a definite direction — down.

Day’s first five seasons as head coach of the Buckeyes have started to become more defined by their lows than their highs.

To some extent, that is life in Columbus, where the standard is impossibly high — national championship or bust in many seasons.

It is so high, in fact, that there is some understanding it won’t actually be met every year as long as certain benchmarks are met.

The first of those is beating Michigan.

Day is 1-3 against the Wolverines with each loss getting more painful than the last.

The first in 2021 was shocking, but he had two chances to erase much of the repetitional damage and failed both times.

Michigan is set to play Washington for the national championship on Monday night, and it is not hard to see Day as having opened the door for the Wolverines return to prominence then failing to shut it.

The NCAA could yet do so, but I’ve already seen multiple national pundits dismiss the idea their title would be tainted even if the Wolverines are eventually punished.

Michigan being back is only one of Day’s problems.

The biggest one this season was the offensive line. The defensive line, though much better this season than the last two, also hasn’t been up to Ohio State standards, and neither of those areas were quite addressed to full capacity in the 2023 or ‘24 recruiting classes.

On top of that, the quarterback failed to be a fixer this season, a multi-pronged problem for Day because he is not only the head coach but also regarded as a QB guru.

If the guru isn’t guru-ing, then what exactly is he doing?

The question figures to color every decision he makes in 2024, starting with how the staff is composed.

On the bright side, the possibility many Ohio State veterans could still decide to put off the NFL for another season, producing a veteran defense and offensive line that should be better with age if that comes to pass.

Another year of seasoning can do wonders for a college football player, especially the closer he plays to the line of scrimmage.

Day’s predecessor, Urban Meyer, was a big believer in the importance of momentum. He credited the Buckeyes’ gutting out a 12-0 record his first season (2012) as a major factor in getting recruiting going and pointing the team toward a national championship season in 2014.

Meyer may have been past his prime by the end of his tenure, but now Day is coming up on a year that can only be described as make or break.

Ohio State is no place to learn on the job even if you inherit a behemoth, as Day did.

Meyer and Jim Tressel already had years of opportunities to develop their coaching tactics and philosophies before they came to Ohio State while Day is learning on the fly in an ever-changing world.

They took on a lot of responsibility, as Day seems to be trying to do, and it still took its toll on them, so the challenges in front of Day are significant to be sure.

So no confusion exists, Day has stated his three biggest goals: Beat Michigan, win the Big Ten, make the College Football Playoff.

Ohio State is 1 for 9 the last three seasons with the one (making the CFP last year) a bit of a fluke thanks to upsets elsewhere on conference championship weekend.

Only time will tell if Day can plug every hole in the Ohio State dam, but perception problems are growing from concerns of the style of play, the direction of recruiting and now even Day’s ability to develop quarterbacks.

Some aspects of all of these challenges are out of Day’s control, but that’s life, especially in sports where the fickle bounce of a ball can have everlasting consequences.

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