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Back in July, my friend and colleague Jami Jurich and I collaborated on our (semi) regular You’re Nuts discussion/debate column and kicked around whether or not 2022 would be a “make-or-break” year for Ryan Day in terms of the forward progress of his tenure at Ohio State.
While I thought that Jami and I both made very logical, grounded,well-reasoned arguments for why it would be, a lot of readers couldn’t get over the term “make-or-break,” assuming that it meant that if the Buckeyes didn’t win a national champion this coming January that Day’s entire program would fall apart around him.
Of course, that is not what we were saying, but rather that this year was simply a majorly important building block to the future success of the program, and if the team stumbled in any significant way, that it could have far-reaching ramifications for years to come.
After all, things that are broken can always be fixed. So, while I do not want to relitigate the “make-or-break”-ness of it all, I do want to attempt to answer the question at the crux of our You’re Nuts column...
Question: Just how important is this season for the future of Ryan Day’s Buckeyes?
In a word, very. Now, again, even if Ohio State failed to make a bowl game this year — which would never happen — Ryan Day would not get fired, nor would his seat even feel the tiniest bit toasty. I have been on record in the hallowed pages of this blog saying that he was the right person to run this program since even before he was named head coach, but if the Buckeyes do fall short of winning a national title this year, that would cap a pretty demoralizing four-year disappointment. And if the defense doesn’t show marked improvement, that could have significant long-term implications for the program.
Of course, the best outcome for all involved is for Jim Knowles to orchestrate the type of defensive turnaround that Jeff Hafley did in 2019 and the Buckeyes are dominant on both sides of the ball en route to a national championship. Not only am I hoping for that, but I put some money down on it when I was in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. So come on, Buckeyes, papa needs a new pair of shoes!
However, should those things not happen, I am concerned about what it would mean for the program moving forward.
Since Day took over as the head coach of the Buckeyes, he has been blessed with borderline obscene offensive talent, including two years led by the best quarterback in program history — Justin Fields — and coming up on the second year for C.J. Stroud who could contend to come in second behind his immediate predecessor.
When you put those types of passers in an offense with the receiving talent that Brian Hartline has stockpiled, it feels like more than a slightly missed opportunity to only make the national title game once and to — more or less — get run off the field in the game, COVID issues notwithstanding.
I have little to no concerns about the offense’s ability to put up points this season — aside from hoping to see a more emphatic effort from the offensive line. But, if offensive recruits see OSU go four years with Heisman-level signal-callers in a scheme run by the quarterback whisperer himself and they still can’t sniff a championship, you have to wonder if that moves Ohio State down a peg for some top-line recruits.
Of course, top-100 guys are likely looking more at which programs can maximize their ability to be selected early in the NFL Draft, so the Buckeyes will always have that going for them, but when you have to compete with the likes of Alabama and Georgia — who also get plenty of talent into the league — perhaps not being viewed as a legitimate title contender could sway a handful of prospects that would otherwise be willing to come to Columbus.
You also have to wonder when/if there will be a slight regression to the mean in terms of offensive recruiting and on-field productivity. Day and company have been practically perfect in both regards since taking over, but even the slightest dip in talent could make a difference down the road.
Now, while I think these offensive quandaries are semi-legitimate concerns, what really has me nervous is whether or not new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles will be able to turn the defense around in a way that balances out the offense’s prowess enough to get OSU over the hump in the postseason.
As I said in yesterday’s Ask LGHL column, I don’t believe that the Buckeyes need to win the College Football Playoff in order to have a successful season, but I do think that making the playoff is the bare minimum, and winning a semifinal game is probably necessary to keep the program moving in the right direction and the fanbase as a whole happy.
My worry is that if with all of the coaching staff turnover; the reconfigured, safety-heavy scheme; the young players getting more of an opportunity to shine, that the OSU defense still looks like the Slate Buckshots rather than the Silver Bullets. If Knowles' side of the ball continues to be nowhere near as impactful as Day’s, first and foremost, that will likely make it difficult to beat the Crimson Tide or UGA or any other top-tier team in the CFP.
But more importantly, given the downturn in defensive recruiting over the past month, if the defense still looks like a bunch of also-rans, will that turn even more blue-chip defenders off from joining the Buckeyes, effectively relegating the team to Big 12 status for the foreseeable future?
I don’t know, but I sure hope not. We’ve seen some pretty dramatic single-season changes on the defensive side of the ball in recent years (some good and some bad), so perhaps I am overreacting. In fairness, I tend to be someone who looks at the world through scarlet-colored glasses, so pessimism doesn’t come naturally to me when it comes to the Buckeyes.
However, I do think that Ryan Day, his staff, and Buckeye players have a lot to prove this season; not only for themselves but for the future of the program as well.