After a wildly successful inaugural year at the helm of Ohio State in 2019 (not to mention three well-coached games as interim head coach in 2018), Ryan Day is faced with high expectations coming into his second full season. However, those expectations must be tempered, because, frankly, everything about this year is weird.
When it comes to overall wins, just as Justin Fields will be hard pressed to match his 3,000+ yards passing in just eight, nine, 10 or even 11 games, Day will find it impossible to match his gross win total from last season. For reference, Day won 13 games as head coach last season, but even winning the College Football Playoff this season would net just 11 wins for the Buckeyes.
Since we can’t go by overall wins as a measure of improvement this season, we have to go by win percentage. Given fewer games, and just a single loss last season, literally the only way to improve win percentage would be for Day to go undefeated. (Because math).
The reality is that there will be a bottom line this college football season, and there are other measuring sticks for which Day has already achieved high marks. Let’s dig into a few.
Given the self-reinforcing recruiting machine he inherited from Urban Meyer, there’s little doubt that expectations will remain high on the recruiting front as well. Day’s 2020 class was ranked fifth nationally, according to ESPN, and brought in a different set of players than Ohio State fans might be used to — like five-star receivers.
In terms of this season, the Big Ten’s COVID-19 response prompted numerous questions of impact to recruiting, especially if a season didn’t happen at all. Those fears have been largely assuaged since the conference announced return to play, and since the general belief is that there will not be a game minimum requirement for a chance to make the College Football Playoff. The fact Ohio State is sitting with the second-ranked 2021 recruiting class (behind Alabama) would indicate Day hasn’t skipped a beat.
But more on the future of Day. The second-year head coach has already brought in a top-five class to a program that takes such high marks for granted. It will take a virtuous cycle of Big Ten and national championships, top draft picks and high-profile wins to continue success on the recruiting trail. The good news is that these successes reinforce one another, and Day has already shown that he can keep this engine chugging along.
That’s a given. Day’s predecessor never fell to the Buckeyes’ biggest rival, and the three-score victory this past season was an indication that Day would continue in that winning vein. In fact, Day could even close the all-time wins gap between Ohio State and Michigan. Currently, the Buckeyes are sitting at a 51-58-6 deficit all-time to Michigan, with Meyer having made up significant ground with his wins in the seven matchups from 2012 - 2018.
As a fun aside, Michigan currently holds the longest winning streak in the rivalry, having taken all nine games between 1901 - 1909. The Buckeyes are rapidly closing in, and Day could tie that streak with a win this season. Ohio State also just nudged past Michigan to take the No. 2 spot in all-time win percentage in the NCAA (behind Boise State of all programs!).
Once again, this measure feels like a given since Day led the Buckeyes to a conference title last season. However, it might be surprising to consider that Ohio State is riding just three-straight conference titles, and that the Buckeyes had a drought of titles, by comparison, from 2015-16. Wow, we really are spoiled.
Looking ahead to this season, which features solely conference matchups, Ohio State drew a favorable schedule. After opening with Nebraska and Penn State, the Buckeyes have a four-game stretch of Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana and Illinois. Ohio State then closes with Michigan State — which will be breaking in new head coach Mel Tucker after the retirement of longtime coach Mark D’Antonio — before ending the regular season against Michigan in Columbus. Even without a bye, the Buckeyes should, in theory, be able to rest players in the middle of the eight-game stretch.
The Big Ten Championship game is currently scheduled for Dec. 19, with a location still to be announced. The game, per the usual, will feature the top teams from the East and the West, but the remaining 12 teams in the conference are set to play an additional game that weekend as well.
As a note, an undefeated regular season assumes success for another key measure — a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Day stopped short of this highest success last season when *deep breaths* the Buckeyes fell to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. While it was certainly a disappointment to lose, it didn’t feel, frankly, like Clemson did under Meyer — like desperate attempts to get the monkey off his back. Day came close, he coached a good game and ultimately came up short (with some questionable calls from the refs along the way). The takeaway felt clear: Day and the Buckeyes would be back.
Of course, when it comes to this season, the first question is if the College Football Playoff will actually happen. Given the time allotted for planning the Playoff, it feels like even a modified scenario will happen regardless this season — whether conferences play championships and whether schools play two or 12 games. And with early projections favoring Ohio State’s berth in the CFP (along with Clemson, Alabama and Georgia), Day should have another crack at it sooner rather than later.
Even without a bye week during the regular season, expectations are on Day to ensure his players are conditioned — a facet that will surely be studied given the numerous, high-profile injuries that occurred in weeks two and three of the NFL season. Despite truncated and punctuated camps and practices, players must be physically and mentally prepared for what’s to come.
Additionally, beyond the aforementioned considerations which are relevant year in and year out, Day will play a critical role in enforcing the Big Ten’s guidance on COVID-19 among his players and staff.
Some things are in control for Day this season, while some - like having a full season - are out of his and Ohio State’s broader control. In many ways, Day will be working diligently to avoid a sophomore slump in a year which will inevitably have an asterisk next to it in the record books. How odd must it be for a coach who won 13 games in his first full season at the helm to pare down to play 11 at a maximum?
But there are (yes, there really are) measures of success that go beyond these pure wins and losses, recruiting rankings and national titles. Let’s jump into a “growth mindset” for a minute: How might the program grow and achieve success outside of these traditional measures, and how might we measure the effort and steps needed to achieve such growth?
While wins and losses are certainly important in a given year, we must be conscious of the long-term health of the program and what Day brings to the table to increase viability. That’s because we’ve seen the damage that has happened at other programs by focusing on the bottom line at the expense of culture and the burnout that can cause.
In that regard, we can see that culture counts. In just a short season, Day has differentiated himself from his predecessor, who himself had honed a unique culture, and has been the face of a new generation of coaches that focus on the whole player and not just on what that player can achieve on the football field.
Day also happens to be the leader we want right now. Again, everything about this football season is weird, including, in some respects, the fact we have a football season at all. Day’s leadership is evident in the fact that players like Shaun Wade and Wyatt Davis opted to return to play for him when given the opportunity after initially opting out.
At the Big Ten level, Day has been the calm, cool, charismatic coach who, along with others like Penn State’s James Franklin, has united with university leadership and health experts to identify a safe return to play plan. Day has constantly been an advocate for his players while deferring medical recommendations to medical experts. As a fan, Day’s commitment to his players has never appeared to be in doubt.