From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about the most important questions yet unanswered for the season. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our “Burning Questions” articles here.
By objective measurements, Ryan Day has had a successful Ohio State coaching career. After auditioning for the role by filling in for the suspended Meyer and posting lopsided wins over Oregon State, Rutgers, and TCU in 2018, Day was hired prior to the 2019 season, after Meyer announced one of his many retirements from coaching.
In four seasons at the helm, Day has compiled a record of 42-6 (.875), has gone 30-2 (.938) in conference games, won two Big Ten championships, and took his teams to three appearances in the College Football Playoff, winning the Rose Bowl in the only year his Buckeyes weren’t invited (2021).
However, what Ohio State coaches are remembered for is how the Buckeyes perform against their hated rivals from up north. Day is 1-2 against Michigan in three iterations of The Game. (There was no meeting in the weird COVID year of 2020 because the Wolverines chose COVID over Ohio State… I kid. Or do I?)
Day’s first shot at Michigan came in 2019 and it could hardly have gone better, with the Buckeyes demolishing the Wolverines, 56-27, with Justin Fields throwing for more than 300 yards and J.K. Dobbins running for 200+ more.
But after the Wolverines canceled on Ohio State in 2020, the tables have turned on Day. Despite fielding what appeared to be much more talented teams, the Buckeyes faltered badly in The Game in 2021 and 2022. Michigan won at home, 42-27, to snap Ohio State’s long streak of dominance in the rivalry series. Ohio State then squandered opportunities and gave up big plays late in a 45-23 loss to the Wolverines in The Horseshoe — an unpardonable sin — and although the final score may have flattered the visitors a tad, Michigan was a deserving winner that day.
With a losing record and a home loss already against Ohio State’s biggest rivals, 2023 presents Day with what amounts to a must-win game on the road against Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines. But to get his second win and even his career record against Michigan, Day will need to take his team into Michigan Stadium and win with a first-year starter — Kyle McCord or Devin Brown, provided nothing unexpected happens between now and then.
The Game has rarely been kind to first-year starters over the years. There is a lot of added pressure in leading a team to victory in the OSU-UM series. Not only is the other team the biggest rival on the schedule, but the matchup comes at the conclusion of the regular season. Usually, a loss in The Game means no trip to the Big Ten Championship Game and puts any shot at the College Football Playoff in serious jeopardy.
Both McCord and Brown have enough talent to get the job done, but quarterback hasn’t been the biggest problem in the two most recent OSU losses. Those games have largely been lost in the trenches, but that too presents problems for the quarterback. If McCord/Brown don’t have the time to find Ohio State’s talented receivers downfield, it limits what Ohio State does best on offense.
With Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, Julian Fleming, Xavier Johnson, and a plethora of younger pass catchers of similar talent (if not experience), the weapons will be there. But McCord/Brown will have to be cool under pressure, as the Buckeyes will have a rebuilt offensive line for this season. By the Michigan game, those pieces should fit together nicely, but may not be as effective as Paris Johnson Jr., Luke Wypler, and Dawand Jones were.
That will require McCord/Brown to make decisions quickly and deliver accurate passes while under duress. McCord has attempted just 38 career passes, completing 25 of them for 416 yards and two touchdowns while tossing two interceptions. Brown has even less experience, with no passing attempts and just one yard of total offense on one carry in mop-up duty against Toledo in 2022.
But this story goes deeper than who Day will have under center on Nov. 25 in Ann Arbor.
Day has a lopsided win and two lopsided losses in the series. He’s following Ohio State’s two most successful coaches when it came to beating Michigan. Meyer went 7-0 against the Wolverines from 2012 through 2018. Prior to Meyer’s reign, with the exception of a one-year interim season for Luke Fickell (who fell in The Game in Ann Arbor — only due to freshman Braxton Miller overthrowing a wide open DeVier Posey), Jim Tressel had posted a record of 9-1 in a decade of dominance. (The 37-7 win in 2010 was technically vacated by the NCAA but it can never be vacated from our hearts and minds.)
The legacy of Day’s tenure at Ohio State faces a crucial junction this November. A third straight loss to Michigan would be the first time that’s happened since 1995-97 under John Cooper, and I don’t have to explain how Cooper’s career with the Buckeyes is viewed. A victory in Ann Arbor would right the ship, put Day back at .500 in the series, and potentially provide a springboard to a special finish to the season.
So, can Day put the same focus on avenging losses to Michigan that he did against Clemson in his first couple of seasons? Can he beat the rejuvenated Wolverines in their own stadium? And, most importantly, can he do it with whichever first-year starter wins the job for 2023?
We’ve got just over five months until we get the answer to these burning questions.