The number of programs that would like to trade with Ohio State are all but a few heavyweights in the SEC. Throughout modern history, the Buckeyes have established themselves as a recession-proof brand of college football, immune to significant downturns and always on the cusp of contention.
It’s a pretty good spot, even this year, as Ohio State goes 11-0 into the final week of the regular season and sits at No. 2. Yet if the Buckeyes lose to 3-ranked Michigan for the second straight season on Saturday, it will seem like a crisis for Ryan Day, a coach who will suddenly occupy one of the hottest spots in America despite winning 90 percent of his games. And no one understands that better than him.
“We’re judged by the big games,” Day said this week, responding to a question about whether four coaching changes after last season were directly related to Ohio State’s stunning 42-27 loss in Ann Arbor. “That’s how it works here, and we certainly know what goes with it.”
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However, Ohio State coaches are not rated at big games. You will be rated in this game. And the last time an Ohio State coach lost back-to-back to Michigan, John Cooper was thanked for his service and told to move on.
That’s how big it is. Throw in the extra stakes on Saturday — the winner goes to the Big Ten title game and probably the college football playoff, the loser gets an irrelevant bowl game vacation — and this could well be the game that makes Day’s tenure or breaks.
Is that an exaggerated statement about a coach who is 45-4, lost just one Big Ten game, and won a national championship game in the college football playoffs in 2020? Maybe.
Day, 43, has done an excellent job by reasonable standards since he took over at Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes recruit at a similar level to Alabama and Georgia and don’t tend to clash with teams they’re supposed to beat. If you do that consistently at Ohio State, you’ll end up having a lot of really good years and never a bad one.
But until and unless Day wins a national title, it will be hard to shake the feeling that he could and should do more with the massive advantages that Ohio State’s history, its institutional investments in football and its status afford him as a dominant provide recruiting draws in the Midwest.
And that’s why what’s happening on Saturday is such a big deal.
Since Meyer took the job in 2012 and brought an SEC-like approach to a program rooted in the Big Ten’s modus operandi, the states of Ohio and Michigan have operated at two distinct levels. Sure, the rivalry was still important to the competition for all sorts of reasons, but for most of the last decade it’s been programs of varying ceilings and ambitions.
Imagine their 125-year rivalry as Sears Roebuck vs. Montgomery Ward. Then suddenly Michigan looks up and suddenly has to compete against Amazon.
You can see this effect in the recruiting classes, where Ohio State’s bottom three were ranked No. 5, No. 2, and No. 4 by 247 Sports. Over the same span, Michigan was ranked 10th, 13th and 9th – still very good, but well below elite in a sport where elite talent usually wins.
However, what happens when Michigan and Jim Harbaugh get the absolute best out of that talent, but Ohio State and Day don’t? Then it gets a lot more interesting, which really wasn’t often the case between 2004 and 2020.
Despite the constant intensity of the rivalry, it’s been a two-way street on the field with the sole exception of 2011, when Ohio State found itself in a rare dysfunctional period between firing Jim Tressel and hiring Meyer.
Going into last year’s game, it looked like it would be more of the same. Though Michigan had an impressive turnaround in 2021 to go 10-1, the Buckeyes were 10-point favorites in Ann Arbor as it was widely believed they were simply in a different weight class.
After they finished the game, Michigan was the only heavyweight on the field. And Ohio State looked like a finesse fighter who couldn’t take a punch.
The magnitude of that loss and the Smashmouth style in which it occurred undeniably shaped the Buckeyes’ approach to 2022. Not only have they overhauled their defensive coaching staff, but there has been a surgical focus on the level of physicality that would be required to overcome that particular side.
“We have scars, and that’s what motivated us all off-season,” Day said.
That’s definitely the right message to send to the Ohio State fanbase. Even if he wanted to downplay the importance of this game, Day doesn’t get that luxury — especially after what happened a year ago.
But what would it say if the Buckeyes went through all this misery for a whole year, brought back one of the top three quarterbacks in the nation in CJ Stroud, took the opportunity at home, and didn’t win this time either?
That’s why this game feels like a fitting referendum on the kind of program Day has built. It’s one thing to fail against an Alabama, Georgia, or even Peak Clemson. But if you can’t beat a Michigan team you have every advantage over, it’s just not good enough.
Day won’t be fired anytime soon, even if he lost 50-0 to Michigan. But another loss would begin to shape the narrative of expectations not being met and Ohio State’s style of football games not performing as it should in the biggest moments.
Even over the course of this season, which has seen Ohio State go 11-0 against Power Five opponents by an average 26-point lead, there have been moments when things haven’t looked as smooth as expected.
In three of their last four games, the Buckeyes struggled somewhat in the fourth quarter against Penn State, Northwestern and Maryland. On Saturday we will find out for sure if these were just signs or symptoms of a deeper problem.
Maybe that’s sophistry on a program that hardly ever loses, but Ohio State’s standards are sky-high. And they should be. Since the 1950s, it has remained the only superpower not to have experienced a prolonged downturn or decline into insignificance.
There are no easy jobs in college football, but no program in the country, with its combination of geography, heritage, money and conference affiliation, is better positioned to win every year than Ohio State. And aside from winning a national title, Day has done what he was supposed to do with those resources.
None of that matters, however, as the Buckeyes go a second straight year without winning the game that matters most. If Harbaugh beats him again on Saturday, the clock for Day’s tenure will start ticking immediately.