As we outlined last week, there has been a shift in the balance of power in Big Ten football, with Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines taking the role of lead dog over the past two seasons.
Still, Ohio State remains a force to be reckoned with. Last season, the Buckeyes were only a missed field goal away from reaching the College Football Playoff championship game. They also continue to rank among the best programs nationally in recruiting and return a loaded roster for the 2023 season.
Coach Ryan Day has some questions to answer, however. Who will replace C.J. Stroud as the starting quarterback? Will the defense improve? Can the Buckeyes get over the hump and win a national championship?
FOX Sports college football experts RJ Young, Michael Cohen and Bryan Fischer are here to weigh in on all of these questions.
Ryan Day is 46-5 as Ohio State’s head coach. He has never lost more than two games in a season and has two Big Ten championships in four years. But Day has never won a national title, has lost two straight to Michigan and hasn’t won the Big Ten since 2020. Is Day actually under pressure going into 2023?
Michael Cohen: The immediate answer is a resounding no, but there are layers to this that must be unpacked. On the surface, the idea that any coach of a Power 5 program could be under pressure after winning 90.2% of his games is rather silly. The best winning percentages in college football history among coaches who worked a minimum of 10 seasons belong to Knute Rockne (88.1% at Notre Dame), Frank Leahy (86.4% at Boston College and Notre Dame) and Urban Meyer (85.4% at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State). That Day is on track to land in the same stratosphere as those guys entering his fifth season with the Buckeyes speaks volumes.
And while losing consecutive games to Michigan certainly hurts — especially considering the fashions in which Ohio State lost the last two years — Day’s 2022 campaign benefited from yet another appearance in the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes were a missed field goal away from potentially winning the national championship, assuming they could have beaten TCU, and that would have drastically changed the perception of Day among Ohio State fans.
The tricky part is what happens if Ohio State loses to the Wolverines again in 2023? And, perhaps more poignantly, what happens if Ohio State loses to Michigan again and finds itself on the outside of the playoff looking in? This is the scenario that will invite more pressure and more scrutiny from fans who can’t stomach the double whammy of losing the rivalry game and being unable to compete for a national title. It would still be somewhat bonkers to think Day should be replaced in that scenario, particularly if the Buckeyes win the rest of their games, but any Ohio State coach who exhibits a pattern of falling short against Michigan is beginning to play with fire.
Bryan Fischer: The head coach in Columbus is judged by one thing above all else: beating Michigan.
Day has dropped back-to-back against the Wolverines, which is an entirely new concept to an entire generation of OSU supporters. So bottom line, yes he is under pressure as a result.
I believe Gene Smith and the administration (keep in mind there’s no new school president at the moment) are largely supportive of Day and are happy with how things have gone on and off the field since Urban Meyer left for the NFL … but such patience will be tested if the school up North is on a three-game win streak by December.
RJ Young: As I wrote yesterday, Day’s job, as he sees it, is to win championships. He hasn’t, and, unfairly or not, he accepts that fact.
“Being a play away from having a completely different conversation right now is not only frustrating but it’s also encouraging,” Day told me, “because our guys this season know how close we are now. We have to replace a couple pieces, but we have more experience coming back on defense than we have since 2019.”
If the sport is judged by the scoreboard — and it is — Day is under pressure. But that would be true regardless of his record. You’re only as good as the last championship you won. If you win, you might get to keep the job. If you don’t, they will take it from you.
Interviews with Ryan Day, Marvin Harrison Jr. and J.T. Tuimoloau
Day has said that his quarterback competition between Kyle McCord and Devin Brown could extend into the regular season. If that happens, Day would be mirroring what Michigan coach Harbaugh did with Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy in 2022. How do you feel about QB races that aren’t settled by the end of camp?
Bryan: Like most coaches, I would hate to go into an opener without confidence in one guy being “the guy.” That said, there are different dynamics nowadays with the transfer portal, so keeping your entire quarterback room happy is a much bigger priority than in the past, so this is a dynamic I can see happening a lot more often at places well beyond OSU.
I trust Day as a quarterback developer — he’s the best in college football as a matter of fact — so I think this is really just a worry that is largely something that will be moot by kickoff this fall.
RJ: While Day has to replace No. 2 overall NFL selection C.J. Stroud, his track record is among the best in the sport at evaluating that position. Every quarterback who has started for him at Ohio State has been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft dating back to the late Dwayne Haskins.
And, quiet as it is kept, McCord started for him against Akron two years ago while Stroud was resting an injury. There’s a derby going on for that job concurrently, but it’d be tough to pick against McCord, who is not just a five-star player but threw passes to the best wideout in the sport, Marvin Harrison Jr., on a state championship team at St. Joseph’s Preparatory in Philadelphia.
Even if that starter isn’t McCord, Brown can sling it. With Day developing him, QB is not the worry at Ohio State. The worry is on the other side of the ball — particularly stopping people from scoring.
Michael: There’s a saying in football that any team with two quarterbacks is really a team with no quarterbacks, with the implication being that every roster needs an alpha at the game’s most important position. And though there’s certainly some truth to this idea, the adage itself is far more applicable in the NFL, where rosters are smaller and salary caps are real, and no rational general manager would handicap the rest of the team by paying two elite quarterbacks.
But college football is different for a variety of reasons, most notably the larger rosters (85 scholarship players) and the absence of salary constraints. The consolidation of talent among the sport’s elite is another important factor to consider. Now more than ever, elite high school quarterbacks are flocking to the same handful of schools on a yearly basis. Consider Georgia, the two-time defending national champions, whose quarterback competition includes three players who were ranked among the top 10 at that position in their respective recruiting classes: Carson Beck in 2020 (No. 250 overall, No. 9 pro-style QB); Brock Vandagriff in 2021 (No. 17 overall, No. 4 QB); Gunner Stockton in 2022 (No. 124 overall, No. 7 QB). And the Bulldogs have verbal commitments from the Nos. 1 and 10 quarterbacks in the 2024 recruiting cycle.
At Ohio State, where Day is choosing between McCord (No. 28 overall, No. 6 QB in 2021) and Brown (No. 43 overall, No. 6 QB in 2022), the scenario is not that different. The idea of extending a quarterback battle into the regular season can be equal parts responsible and logical when there’s that much talent at a critical position. It would allow Ohio State’s coaches to evaluate the players against real competition and has the added benefit of keeping talented players on the roster instead of in the transfer portal. The Buckeyes should be able to navigate an opening trio of games against Indiana, Youngstown State and Western Kentucky regardless of whether Day plays quarterback roulette.
Ohio State is again loaded with talent at the offensive skill positions, but an argument can be made that how far the team goes this season will hinge largely on the defense led by second-year coordinator Jim Knowles. What must Knowles’ group do in 2023 if the Buckeyes want to win a national championship?
RJ: OK, allow me to give a Cohen-type response here.
[Stretches, cracks knuckles]
Knowles has gotta keep a lid on the secondary.
The Buckeyes have been searching for their 2019 form for five years. They’re into their second coordinator since Jeff Hafley left that gig, and, now, in Jim Knowles’ Year 2, there is heat not just on the defense to perform but on Day to oversee it.
The Buckeyes gave up an average of 39.3 points to top-15 opponents last year, including 45 and 42, respectively, to Michigan and Georgia.
No one doubts that Larry Johnson Sr. will have his defensive line, led by J.T. Tuimoloau ready to go. And linebackers Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers are more than capable at the second level.
However, the defense gave up 216 on the ground to Donovan Edwards last November.
The secondary is where Ohio State will need the most improvement if it hopes to beat Michigan, win the Big Ten title and make the national championship game for the first time since 2020.
Jordan Hancock, Davison Igbinosun and Sonny Styles Jr. need to do better than give up 371 pass yards and three TD passes to Penn State, 263 passing yards — 160 receiving to Cornelius Johnson — and three TDs to Michigan, and 398 passing yards with three TDs to Georgia — including three catches for 129 yards and TD to Arian Smith, a Dawg who’d caught just three passes all year before that game.
If you can’t stop the best from running it up, you’re not gonna win a national title. In a defense that often fields five defensive backs in the base package, you can’t get thrown on as often as Ohio State did last year and expect to win a national title.
Michael: The most glaring area that needs to be addressed is the number of big plays allowed. This became the Achilles’ heel for Ohio State in critical games against Michigan and Georgia. The Wolverines scored touchdowns of 69 yards, 75 yards, 45 yards, 75 yards (again) and 85 yards en route to a commanding 45-23 win. The Bulldogs scored a critical 76-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of a 42-41 win and produced additional plays gaining 47 yards, 52 yards and 35 yards. Overall, the Buckeyes’ defense ranked tied for 123rd nationally by allowing 11 plays of 50-plus yards.
Among the reasons for those critical breakdowns were the underwhelming numbers of takeaways and sacks relative to what Ohio State has typically produced. The 18 total takeaways by Knowles’ defense were the Buckeyes’ fewest since 2005 and ranked tied for 66th nationally. And the absence of an elite pass rusher left the Buckeyes with just 34 total sacks, which was their fewest since 2016 — outside of the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign — and ranked tied for 32nd nationally. An improvement in either area would go a long way for Knowles’ defense this season.
Bryan: It’s very simple: Stop giving up the big plays. Knowles is almost too aggressive given the personnel advantage that he has with the Buckeyes, and I would expect him to be a little more balanced with his calls in 2023.
That, combined with the playmaking abilities of the guys coming back, and it wouldn’t surprise me if OSU’s defense is one of the better units in the Big Ten by the time conference play really gets underway.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.
Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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