The number of programs that would gladly trade places with Ohio State is all of them, with the current exception of a couple heavyweights in the SEC. Over the course of modern history, the Buckeyes stand alone as college football’s recession-proof brand, immune to significant downturns and always on the cusp of contention.
It’s a pretty good place to be, including this year as Ohio State enters the final week of the regular season 11-0 and ranked No. 2. Yet if the Buckeyes lose Saturday to No. 3 Michigan for the second year in a row, it will seem like a crisis for Ryan Day, a coach who will suddenly occupy one of the hottest seats in America despite winning 90 percent of his games. And nobody understands that more than he does.
“We’re evaluated by the big games,” Day said this week, responding to a question about whether four coaching staff changes after last season were directly tied to Ohio State’s stunning 42-27 loss in Ann Arbor. “That’s the way it goes here, and certainly we know what comes with it.”
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Ohio State coaches, however, don’t get evaluated on big games. They get evaluated on this game. And the last time an Ohio State coach lost two in a row to Michigan, John Cooper was thanked for his service and told to move along.
That’s how big this is. Throw in the additional stakes Saturday — winner goes to the Big Ten title game and likely the College Football Playoff, loser gets an irrelevant bowl game vacation — and this might well be the game that makes or breaks Day’s tenure.
Is that a hyperbolic thing to say about a coach who is 45-4, lost just one Big Ten game and made a College Football Playoff national championship game in 2020? Perhaps.
By any rational measure, the 43-year-old Day has done an excellent job since taking over for Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes recruit at a similar level to Alabama and Georgia and don’t tend to stub their toe against teams they’re supposed to beat. If you do that consistently at Ohio State, you’re going to end up with a lot of really good years and never have a bad one.
But until and unless Day wins a national title, it will be hard to escape from the sense that he could and should be doing more with the massive advantages given to him by Ohio State’s history, its institutional investment in football and its status as the dominant recruiting draw in the Midwest.
And that’s why what happens Saturday is such a big deal.
Ever since Meyer took the job in 2012 and brought an SEC-style approach to a program rooted in the Big Ten way of doing things, Ohio State and Michigan have operated on two different planes. Sure, the rivalry was still important competitively for all kinds of reasons, but for most of the last decade they have been programs with different ceilings and ambitions.
Think of their 125-year rivalry as Sears Roebuck vs. Montgomery Ward. Then suddenly, Michigan looks up and suddenly has to compete against Amazon.
You can see this effect in the recruiting classes, where Ohio State’s last three were ranked No. 5, No. 2 and No. 4 by 247 Sports. In the same span, Michigan was ranked No. 10, No. 13 and and No. 9 — still very good, but a clear cut below the elite in a sport where elite talent usually wins.
What happens, though, if Michigan and Jim Harbaugh are getting the absolute most out of that talent while Ohio State and Day are not? Then things become a lot more interesting, which really wasn’t the case very often between 2004 and 2020.
Despite the constant intensity of the rivalry, it was one-way traffic on the field with the lone exception of 2011 when Ohio State was in a rare dysfunctional period between Jim Tressel’s firing and Meyer’s hiring.
Going into last year’s game, it looked like more of the same. Though Michigan had pulled off an impressive turnaround in 2021 to get to 10-1, the Buckeyes were 10-point favorites in Ann Arbor because of the widespread belief that they were simply in a different weight class.
After they finished playing, though, the only heavyweight on the field was Michigan. And Ohio State looked like a finesse fighter that couldn’t take a punch.
The magnitude of that loss, and the smashmouth style in which it happened, undeniably shaped how the Buckeyes approached 2022. Not only did they overhaul their defensive coaching staff, but there was a surgical focus on the level of physicality it would take to beat this specific team.
“We have scars, and it motivated us all offseason,” Day said.
That’s clearly the right message to convey to the Ohio State fan base. Even if he wanted to downplay the importance of this game, Day doesn’t get that luxury — especially after what happened a year ago.
But what would it say if the Buckeyes go through all of that misery for an entire year, bring back one of the nation’s three best quarterbacks in C.J. Stroud, get the revenge opportunity at home and don’t win this time either?
That’s why this game feels like an appropriate referendum on the kind of program Day has built. It’s one thing to fall short against an Alabama, Georgia or even peak Clemson. But if you aren’t beating a Michigan team that you have every advantage over, it’s just not good enough.
Day is not going to be fired anytime soon, even if he lost 50-0 to Michigan. But another loss would start to set the narrative that expectations are not being met and the style of football Ohio State plays is not working the way it should in the biggest moments.
Even through the course of this season, as Ohio State has raced to 11-0 with an average victory margin of 26 points against Power Five opponents, there have been moments where things don’t look as smooth as expected.
In three of their last four games, the Buckeyes have been in trouble to some degree in the fourth quarter against Penn State, Northwestern and Maryland. On Saturday, we are going to find out for sure whether those were just blips or symptoms of a deeper problem.
Maybe that’s nitpicking a program that hardly ever loses, but the standards at Ohio State are sky high. And they should be. Since the 1950s, it remains the only superpower that has not experienced an extended downturn or fallen into irrelevance.
There are no easy jobs in college football, but no program in the country has a better setup to win every year with its combination of geography, tradition, money and conference affiliation than Ohio State. And short of winning a national title, Day has done what he is supposed to do with those resources.
None of that will matter, though, if the Buckeyes go a second straight year without winning the game that matters most. If Harbaugh beats him again on Saturday, the clock on Day’s tenure will immediately start ticking.