The 2007 BCS Championship was a dousing of cold water to Ohio State specifically and the Big Ten more generally. Just a few seasons removed from a national title won on the back of unrelenting defense and hard running, the Buckeyes looked big and slow compared to the lightning quick spread of Florida’s (then LSU’s) offense.
The transformation would take time, but Ohio State — and the Big Ten — would make it, with the most recent example of success being the set of similarly lightning quick receivers that were just selected in the NFL Draft.
In the late-2000s, Ohio State refused to be caught up in the on-field trends that were popping up in the Pac-12 and SEC, which set them severely behind the curve. That lack of participation led to transformations under Urban Meyer and Ryan Day, which led to the program we see today in Columbus. Now, a much different shift is impacting the entirety of the college athletics landscape — with football as the most pronounced subject.
Rather than changes on the field, the reinforcing trends around NIL and the transfer portal have created a perfect storm that’s already seemed to grow too powerful for the NCAA to handle. However, they’re far from the only issues the embattled organization is facing. It doesn’t help that conference expansion and realignment (everything from a 16-team SEC to a decimated Big 12 to an apparently irrelevant alliance) have created upheaval in the relative stability of the Power Five. Further, the lack of expansion in the College Football Playoff has generated animosity and cynicism around the sport, which reinforces the idea that the College Football Playoff Committee is really the power structure that is in control.
As these changes and probably dozens of other factors wreak havoc on the sport we know and love, Ohio State seems to be watching it all happen from a safe distance. Unlike that period of more than a decade ago, however, this transformation — what some might dub outright chaos — doesn’t seem to be one schools should be actively trying to be part of, and a safe distance, maybe with popcorn in hand, is the best place to be.
That’s because governance is almost out of the question. The NCAA is all but powerless to stop the proliferation of the portal and the rise of collectives. Whatever this alliance is with the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 seems as ineffectual as it is shapeless.
In many ways, these structures leave every team unto themselves, which means that it helps to have strong leadership at the program level. At Ohio State, Ryan Day has been unperturbed and unflappable. He’s wise to the ways of the portal and the other aspects of the shifting landscape, but only insofar as they support his agenda in Columbus.
There’s evidence that other programs’ stocks have risen with a strategically selected influx of transfers. By way of example, Michigan State rebounded in short order as Mel Tucker capitalized on the portal with players like Kenneth Walker, who made an immediate impact. There’s also the case of high profile transfers like wide receiver Jameson Williams, who moved from Ohio State to Alabama and was a first-round selection in the NFL Draft.
However, both of these cases are generally exceptions rather than the rule. In the first, the practice of rebuilding a team from scratch year in and year out is unsustainable. In the second, the number of transfers who can move from an elite program that’s not the right fit to another elite program that is the right fit is not high.
Day could choose to go after high profile transfers or recruit without intent to develop, but that’s not his MO. Call Day old fashioned, but perhaps the commitment to the players he and his staff have recruited have paid off in a big way. Further, Day has the advantage of a brand like Ohio State backing him, which could garner any number of high profile transfers. Instead, Day has selectively used the transfer portal to fill key positions.
Plus, why do you need the portal when you regularly have top-five recruiting classes?
When it comes to name, image and likeness, Ohio State has been leaning closer to the edge and absorbing more risk, perhaps, than its programs have done when it comes to the transfer portal. In particular, the university has not prevented student athletes from capitalizing on rule changes, even going so far as to set up a team that enables athletes to find opportunities. In the first six months following last summer’s rule changes, 220 student athletes made nearly $3 million in NIL deals at Ohio State. So, while the athletic department is clearly dipping its toe in NIL, it is doing so in a way that feels responsible and aimed at supporting a wide swath of student athletes.
Even collectives — one of the terms that has induced the most anxiety in recent months when it has come to NIL — have a somewhat different tack at Ohio State, with the two main collectives being stood up to support current athletes rather than recruits. Moreover, both foundations emphasize a social benefit, with collaborations aimed at improving awareness for local charities.
In many ways, Ohio State does not need to panic in the way other programs might be doing this offseason. The Big Ten is remarkably stable (the Big Ten media rights deal, expected to be announced in the coming weeks, further bolsters the wealthy and stable conference). Compare the Big Ten to the Big 12, which has had to replace its two highest-value programs this past offseason and which lost the coach of one of those programs (and many players) to USC.
The Buckeyes have also largely benefited from a stable coaching staff, the defensive coordinator role being the lone exception, and Day’s new contract only bolsters that perception. This sort of stability means that rather than jumping full tilt into the latest trends, the program can pick and choose where to invest and where to play in ways that will provide the most benefit — and in ways that don’t feed into the mass of chaos we’ve seen across the landscape in recent months.