Ryan Day stood in front of a live Big Ten Network audience and a football field full of reporters in July and essentially declared Ohio State’s 2021 football season a failure.
“Maybe in some places 11–2 with a Victory at the Rose Bowl is a good year. It’s not at Ohio State,” the Buckeyes coach said. “Our three goals are: beat Team North, win the Big Ten Championship, win the National Championship. Those are our goals, and those things didn’t happen last year.
It was a remarkable statement. It articulated both admirable ambition and troubling urgency. Daring to be the best can be a good thing, but the consequences of failure can be dramatic.
With that as the norm – beat Michigan, win the Big Ten, win it all – Ohio State has had six “good years” in the history of a program that began in 1890. (You could argue in favor of a few other national championships won outside of the AP, UPI, BCS, or College Football Playoff titles of 1942, ’54, ’57, ’68, 2002, and ’14, but they are disputed.) If 11 wins and winning an exciting Rose Bowl aren’t good enough, is that prospect realistic or healthy? And if that’s the expectation, what pressure is on the current Buckeyes coming off a “bad year” like ’21?
When Ohio State players come up against a roaring Horseshoe on Saturday night to play Notre Dame and kick off this season, they surely know what they’re getting into. It’s a lot to manage.
They have to win this year, and they have to expiate. Another upset loss at home early in the season, non-conference, would not go well, but a repeat of the season-ending loss to Michigan would be considered a ruin. A playoff that doesn’t include victory at Indianapolis in the league championship game is unacceptable. Even making the College Football Playoffs, a triumph at 129 of 131 FBS schools, doesn’t earn Job Well Done kudos.
“The hope is to win them all,” Day said flatly in July. “I said that at my opening press conference when I was named head coach. [in 2018]and that’s how. »
Day has had a good run at that impossible expectation — he’s 34-4 as a coach, an absurd record to start a career. But after winning their first 22 regular season games, there was this improvement against the Ducks. And after winning their first 24 Big Ten games, there was the beating in the Big House against the Wolverines. And after making CFP its first two seasons, there was the disappointment of just going to the Rose Bowl.
It doesn’t sound like a Larry Coker situation in Miami two decades ago, but it’s something to watch. Like Day, Coker was promoted from within, replacing Butch Davis who left for the NFL. Coker inherited an all-time great roster, won the national championship his first season (2001), then played for the championship again his second season (losing to Ohio State). Then it started to slip: two losses in his third season, three in his fourth and fifth, then a 7-6 record in 2006 that got him fired. The Miami dynasty hasn’t been the same since.
After making the playoffs his first two seasons, Day had a tiny slip-up in his third, enough to notice him in a place that strives for perfection. Enough to raise just a tremor of concern about whether the third base coach – like Jim Harbaugh alluded to Day last November— can maintain or build on the juggernaut Urban Meyer left him, or if it’s diminishing returns in the future. Enough to make this season very important.
On paper and in the preseason cocoon, this Ohio State team should be better than 11-2. The only team that has consistently ranked higher than the Buckeyes is the only team with commensurate expectations, Alabama. No one thinks they have a better offense. Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was hired on a rock star salary to form one of the top 10 units nationwide in Day’s estimation (“That’s What We Want”). Starting today, Day’s team would be solidly favored in every pre-Playoff game.
So the Ohio state emergency is backed by tangible optimism. He apparently has the staff, the coaches and the schedule to do it all. And hunger too.
Take the Michigan game. The Buckeyes have lost 59 times to their historic rival, but they speak as if defeat can never again be tolerated at the hands of the Wolverines. “We had to sit on this for a calendar year,” Day said. “It’s not good. It’s something we never want to experience again.”
Day’s highest standards trickled down to the players. Listen to them and you can hear almost a dismissive attitude towards all of 2021’s accomplishments. Especially from quarterback CJ Stroud.
At this point last season, he had never thrown a varsity pass. He ended up throwing for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns, leading the nation in yards per attempt (10.1) and finishing second in efficiency (186.56). He was a Heisman Trophy finalist.
And he seems completely impressed with himself.
“I haven’t accomplished much,” Stroud said on Big Ten media days. “I feel like I haven’t done much. I barely touched my potential. … Everyone congratulates you on the simple things, which I appreciate, but I don’t congratulate myself. I do my job decently well. I don’t think I’m terrible. But I can be better in all areas.
I asked Day about this self-assessment from Stroud, if his quarterback was being too hard on himself. His response: “That says a lot about CJ. He is very motivated. He really wants it badly. I think that’s what makes it great. He did a lot of great things last year, but I think his best football is ahead of him.
Ohio State’s best football under Day could top him this season. If this is not the case, if the trinity of objectives has not yet been achieved this year, can the Buckeyes still have a “good” season? It’s an existential question that Ohio State fans don’t want to consider.
When the publicly stated objective is to win everything, the resulting pressure is immense. And Ryan Day wouldn’t have it any other way.
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