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Even though things haven’t been going well for Ohio State, it’s not time to panic... but it might be soon

The Buckeyes have the ability over the next days and weeks to quiet many of the concerns around the program, but they could also end up making them worse.

Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK
Matt Tamanini Matt Tamanini is the co-managing editor of Land-Grant Holy Land having joined the site in 2016.

They say that it is always darkest before the dawn, but the problem with that is — in the darkness — you can’t ever be sure if you are actually experiencing pitch blackness, or if there is still a deeper darkness yet to come. That is where we are at with the Ohio State football team in my estimation.

Of course, this is all relative, because an 11-1 regular season, a berth in a New Year’s Six Bowl, and the No. 2 national recruiting class would be considered the brightest possible outcome for nearly every college football program. But, since Saturday, Nov. 25, when the Buckeyes lost to their rivals for the third straight year, things have become increasingly concerning for the folks occupying the Woody Hayes Athletic Facility.

The Buckeyes have seen 14 players enter their names in the transfer portal, including starting quarterback Kyle McCord, first-team wide receiver Julian Fleming, and semi-starting runningback Chip Tayanum. While the rest of the transfers were mostly depth pieces who had already been passed by younger guys, the fact that 16.5% of your scholarship roster — not factoring in guys who are exhausting their eligibility this season — are choosing to continue their college careers elsewhere is at least a little bit concerning.

Ohio State also saw a five-star defensive line prospect who had been committed since July and a four-star running back flip their pledges to the Miami Hurricanes and a five-star offensive lineman, who had multiple Ohio State crystal balls, commit to Coach Prime and Colorado, even though the Buffs weren’t on his list of final candidates released just two days earlier. Multiple other highly rated pledges are also rumored to be on the verge of flipping their commitments, which would decimate OSU’s currently second-rated recruiting class as the Early Signing Period opens.

With the specter of being behind their rivals in the Big Ten looming over everything happening around Ryan Day’s program, there is no doubt that things are incredibly dark for OSU right now. However, there is also the possibility that this is, in fact, peak darkness and that the dawn is within reach if the Buckeyes can just maintain their balance as they stagger through the final seconds of pitch blackness.

What’s Going on with All of the Flips from Ohio State?

With the Early Signing Period officially opening today, Day and his staff have their first major opportunity to prove that their ship is not, in fact, sinking. As the No. 2 class nationally, if the Buckeyes are able to hang onto players like Jeremiah Smith, Eddrick Houston, and Jeremiah McClellan who have been the topics of flipping rumors (“flipping” as in their potential to sign with a school other than OSU despite being committed to the Buckeyes and how obnoxious these rumors are), that would go a long way to quieting the onslaught of doubt that has crept up around the program following its loss in the regular season finale.

But the Buckeyes have already lost long-committed players as this fall, both four-star running back Jordan Lyle and five-star defensive lineman Justin Scott opted to play for Miami instead of Ohio State. Unfortunately, this has become a bit of a pattern — and could potentially become an even more problematic one today — for these position groups. Lyle joins a long line of South Florida backs to give Tony Alford their pledge, only to back out of it later on.

The legendary Larry Johnson also seems to have lost his fastball when it comes to closing elite defensive line prospects. Having already lost Scott’s commitment, L.J. struggled over the summer in landing players who had once been considered slam dunks for OSU. If he were to lose Houston as well, it would be a debilitating blow to the defensive line room in the 2024 class, but also to Johnson’s ability to recruit moving forward.

Other teams have been using the possibility of Johnson retiring against the Buckeyes for years, and at 71 years old, how long he will be around is a legitimate question for fans, players, and recruits. Reports indicate that Houston is only keeping an open mind about other schools because of the possibility that Larry won’t be around to coach him, and I do not fault any player for factoring that into his decision-making process. While everyone preaches to pick the school, not the coaches (since you never know when a coach will take another job or be fired), of course, the coaches that you will be working with for the next three to five years will be the most important piece in deciding where to play.

As I mentioned in an article earlier this week, I think that there are legitimate reasons to wonder if the OSU football program might not be better off if Day moved on from the coaches brought into the Buckeye program by Urban Meyer (Brian Hartline doesn’t count, because his connection to the team predates being hired by Urban). I plan on expanding on this later in the week, but I don’t mean this as an attack on any of those guys, because Alford, Johnson, Corey Dennis, and Mickey Marotti have all been instrumental in the success that OSU has had over the past decade.

But, I feel that there are increasingly valid concerns about their ability to execute the way that the program needs them to moving forward. While I will absolutely not be angry, or even upset, if all four of them are retained — there are other, more obvious personnel changes that should have already been made — I do think that it is time for Day to consider remaking his staff completely in his image and likeness. And should the worst-case scenarios unfold on the first day of the Early Signing Period, it might be time to have those conversations far more quickly than anyone inside the Woody would like.

Why Has Ohio State Not Been Active in the Transfer Portal?

With more than a dozen players in the transfer portal, there is no doubt that depth is a factor long-term for Ohio State, but also in next week’s Cotton Bowl and, more importantly, in the 2024 season. The vast majority of players who have departed Columbus for parts unknown would not have been starters next fall, but that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have been instrumental to the success that the team could and should have in the newly reconfigured Big Ten.

Despite all of the attrition, not to mention some still glaring holes on the roster from this past season, OSU has yet to land a single player from the portal. Now, the Buckeyes do still have to worry about scholarship limits, and if they are still unsure of the status of players returning next year, it would be difficult to commit to bringing a guy in. Denzel Burke, Emeka Egbuka, Jordan Hancock, Donovan Jackson, Jack Sawyer, Cody Simon, and Tyleik Williams all said that they would be playing against Missouri, but that doesn’t mean that they will be back next year. And what about Marvin Harrison Jr., TreVeyon Henderson, and J.T. Tuimoloau? If even half of those players return in 2024, the Buckeyes look like a completely different team than they would otherwise. Simon is the only player thus far who has said that he plans to come back for another year.

Since they are all projected to be first or second-round picks, I am assuming that — until told otherwise — Burke, Egbuka, Harrison, Henderson, Sawyer, and Tuimoloau will all be in the NFL next season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Williams is as well. Of course, I want all of these players to make the best decisions for themselves and their families, and I do not begrudge them grabbing that generational NFL money when it presents itself, but not knowing their status for 2024 seems to be slowing down the process for OSU to fill up some very important slots on their roster.

We have seen the Buckeyes cancel visits with highly sought-after portal players who have ended up going to SEC powers, we’ve seen OSU lose out on guys who have felt like perfect fits for the team’s current needs, and we’ve seen Day’s staff not even get involved in players who have openly discussed being interested in playing in Columbus.

Now, of course, the coaching staff has a much better handle on who is, and isn’t, coming back than we do publicly, so perhaps the way they are looking at their board isn’t as dour as it seems from the outside. Besides, I’m not actually worried about the portal because there will inevitably be even more guys entering after bowl games. So, if the coaching staff doesn’t find someone that they love — especially if they still aren’t sure how many guys are coming back — then I think it is okay to wait. The Buckeyes are currently pursuing some guys, so I assume that if they find someone they really want, they’ll go after him.

But, if Day and company sit pat, as has pretty much been their M.O. in the portal most years, then I think there is reason for concern. There are just too many holes on the team currently not to attempt to plug them with experienced guys. Whether it is with guys who will start right away or players who can serve as experienced backups, on the offensive and defensive lines, at linebacker, at running back, at safety, at corner, at quarterback, there is legitimate need across the board, depending on how things shake out.

Ohio State can’t be afraid to bring guys in, just because it could upset players on the current roster. Transfers played nearly 4,000 minutes of action for Michigan this season, and teams like Alabama and Georgia have thrived in the portal. The Buckeyes no longer have the luxury of being scared when it comes to the expansion of the portal. We have seen them utilize it to incredible results in very limited instances in the past, there’s no reason not to fill holes this way in modern college football.

So, if after bowl season (unless an unexpected number of draft-eligible players return) Day decides not to actively engage in the portal as a way to improve his team, I think that speaks not only to an inability to grasp the shortcomings of his current roster, but also to a lack of understanding of how the sport has transitioned from being only about high school recruiting and development to one that values both prep prospects and portal additions. Not being able to adapt to the new college football landscape would likely signify incredibly significant, long-term issues for Day and his program.

Is It Time to Panic or Not?

The next month will be an incredibly important one for Ryan Day and the Ohio State coaching staff. From a roster construction and staff makeup perspective, if changes aren’t made, then I believe it speaks to a debilitating paralysis in the head coach’s ability to make the changes necessary to move his team forward. I have long harped on the fact that I believe that Day needs to turn over offensive play-calling duties in order to allow himself to focus on his head coaching responsibilities. And while I certainly think that this should still happen, due to the disappointing finishes over the last three seasons, it has become one of the less vital changes that he needs to make.

I still believe in Day’s ability to coach football, but in many ways, I believe that his ability to do what is necessary to be a truly successful head football coach will be tested before the end of January 2024. If he is able to pull the trigger on the potentially difficult decisions concerning his roster, his staff, and himself, then I think he just might have learned the lessons of his recent struggles in big games.

But, if he continues to bury his head in the sand instead of being the confident, decisive leader that his program needs, then we might be in for even more darkness than anyone in Buckeye Nation would like to suffer through.