Three Straight Years of Unmet Goals Could Make 2024 A Make-or-Break Year for Ryan Day

By Dan Hope on December 31, 2023 at 8:35 am
Ryan Day

At most schools, a head coach with a 53-8 record would have rock-solid job security. But most college football programs aren’t Ohio State.

The Buckeyes have been one of college football’s best teams year in and year out in Ryan Day’s five seasons as OSU’s head coach. They’ve won at least 11 games in all of those seasons that weren’t shortened by COVID-19, and they’ve never lost more than two games in a season.

But the Buckeyes have never finished the year as the best team in college football under Day, which is the standard of expectation at Ohio State. Moreover, the Buckeyes haven’t achieved any of the goals they’ve repeatedly set for themselves – beat Michigan, win the Big Ten championship and win the national championship – in any of the past three seasons.

As a result, it no longer feels like a stretch to say Day could be facing a make-or-break year in 2024.

While there is a vocal portion of the Ohio State fanbase who would like to see the Buckeyes make a coaching change already after they finished the 2023 season with an ugly 14-3 loss to Missouri in the Cotton Bowl, Day’s job remains safe for now. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith has never been one to make rash decisions based on fan outcry; it would have taken more than two losses this season for Ohio State to seriously consider showing Day the door.

That said, Ohio State’s disappointing end to the season as the Buckeyes lost their final two games of the year for the second year in a row leaves Day facing more pressure to win than he’s ever had before entering his sixth year as Ohio State’s head coach. And there are some major questions entering the 2024 offseason that Day will need to answer to get the Buckeyes over the hump next year.

Before getting into what went wrong for the Buckeyes this season, Day deserves credit for successfully repairing a defense that had been Ohio State’s Achilles heel for the past three years. Ohio State is poised to finish among the top three teams nationally in both scoring and total defense for the 2023 season, a turnaround that started when Day overhauled Ohio State’s defensive coaching staff after the 2021 season by bringing in Jim Knowles as defensive coordinator and Tim Walton and Perry Eliano to lead the secondary.

What’s making Day’s grasp on the head coaching job start to feel less firm is the fact that Ohio State struggled this season in Day’s areas of expertise. After ranking in the top 11 nationally in both total and scoring offense in each of his first six seasons at Ohio State as either offensive coordinator or head coach, the Buckeyes finished this season ranked barely inside the top 50 in both categories. Ohio State’s quarterback play was just adequate during the regular season and worse in the Cotton Bowl, the Buckeyes’ offensive line struggled throughout the year and Ohio State’s offensive game plans in big games left a lot to be desired.

To prove that he should still be the head coach beyond 2024, Day must make the necessary fixes to get Ohio State’s offense back to performing at an elite level so that the Buckeyes have a chance to achieve their goals next season. That could potentially start with adding a veteran quarterback via the transfer portal – former Kansas State quarterback Will Howard is the likeliest candidate to fill that role – and upgrading the talent on the offensive line, but Day must also take a hard look at whether he needs to reshape his offensive coaching staff, both in terms of potential staff changes and whether it’s time for him to delegate offensive play-calling duties.

“Everything’s gonna get looked at. If it's what helps Ohio State go reach our goals and win these games, then we'll make those changes,” Day said after the loss to Missouri. “So gotta really evaluate it the right way and make sure I'm doing it the right way and do what's appropriate and what’s best for the program.”

On the same wavelength, Day must also determine how to fix Ohio State’s special teams after multiple years of substandard play in that phase of the game. The Buckeyes might not hire another full-time special teams coordinator if they part ways with Parker Fleming, but Day needs to figure out how to best utilize that spot on the staff and who can elevate the Buckeyes’ special teams performance.

With Smith still on the job as Ohio State’s athletic director for six more months, Day will likely continue to have the full authority to make whatever decisions he feels are best for the OSU football program. Smith’s impending retirement at the end of June, however, is another reason why Day’s seat could be warm entering the 2024 season.

While Smith has been known to be patient and loyal with his hires, the yet-to-be-hired new athletic director could theoretically be more inclined to make a change if Day’s Buckeyes fall short of expectations again in 2024.

There are good reasons for Ohio State to exercise patience with Day. There have been plenty of examples of that strategy paying off elsewhere; just look at Michigan, where Jim Harbaugh started 0-5 against Ohio State but has now led the Wolverines to three straight wins in The Game, three straight Big Ten championships and three straight College Football Playoff berths in his seventh through ninth seasons leading the program.

Ohio State has yet to have an actual bad season with Day at the helm, and he’s consistently recruited at a high level, signing five straight top-five-ranked classes per the 247Sports composite rankings. And he has plenty of supporters inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center who believe he is the right man to lead the program.

“We all love it here. We love Coach Day. We love the staff,” Ohio State defensive end Jack Sawyer said after Friday’s loss. “Sometimes unfortunate things happen and you don't get the outcome you want.”

It’s also true, though, that Ohio State has plateaued for the past three years with three straight 11-2 seasons and no wins in The Game. And while Day has won nearly 87% of his overall games in his five seasons as Ohio State’s full-time head coach, his record in big games leaves plenty to be desired, with just one win over Michigan in four tries, one win in four College Football Playoff games and a 5-7 overall record in Michigan and postseason games.

With the College Football Playoff set to expand to 12 teams, the minimum expectations for Ohio State in 2024 should be to make the CFP and to end its drought against Michigan, which could lose a lot of key pieces from its roster – and maybe its head coach if Harbaugh chooses to jump to the NFL – after this season. If the Buckeyes fail to achieve either or both of those goals, Day’s seat could get hot quickly.

Winning the Big Ten and the national championship will only become tougher goals to achieve now that Oregon, Washington, USC and UCLA are joining the Big Ten and that teams will need to win at least three CFP games to win a national title, so those goals shouldn’t necessarily be prerequisites for Day to keep his job. But both should remain expectations nevertheless, and Ohio State needs to at least be in serious contention for both goals for Day to strengthen his case that he should remain Ohio State’s head coach long-term.

As Ohio State begins its preparations for 2024, Day is fully expected to be the man leading those preparations. But Ohio State’s disappointing finish in 2023 ensures the stakes will be high for Day’s sixth year on the job.

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