Now, the fun really starts for Ohio State's Ryan Day
In the aftermath of Monday’s loss to Alabama in the national championship, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day was honest about the toll this season has taken. He told the media, “We all just need a break. We’ve already started to put together the schedule for the spring, but we all need to get away for a while.”
When Day does return to work, the fun really starts.
The last 2-plus seasons have been a dream start for a first-time head coach. The Buckeyes are 23-2 with 2 Big Ten titles and 2 trips to the College Football Playoff under Day (including 3 games from 2018 in which he was acting head coach). Day obviously inherited a terrific situation with Justin Fields, the highest-rated recruit in Ohio State history, ready to take over at QB.
A Fields-led Ohio State was no match for the rest of the Big Ten, as Indiana was the only team to come within 10 points of the Buckeyes in 16 games. In other words, Big Ten games with Fields were a bit of a snooze-fest in terms of drama. Fields, as the kids say, was a cheat code; opponents were overmatched.
NFL analysts have often speculated that coaches like Bill Belichick and Sean Payton enjoyed the challenge of trying to win without their Hall of Fame quarterbacks. What could they do differently in terms of scheme to maximize the ability of a player who wasn’t quite as gifted? Day, with his All-America quarterback going to the NFL, will get the chance to show why he is an elite head coach, kind of like how Steve Sarkisian showed he is an elite coordinator the last few seasons.
Even with a .920 winning percentage (Meyer’s was .902 in 7 seasons at Ohio State), Day won’t enter the upper echelon of college coaches until, for one, he wins a national championship. But secondly, Day has to show he can win with a different group — mainly, a different QB.
Look at what Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney and Lincoln Riley have done in recent years. It doesn’t matter who is playing QB — they win. When Trevor Lawrence had COVID and had to sit out, freshman D.J. Uiagalelei stepped in and threw for 439 yards at Notre Dame. When Baker Mayfield goes No. 1 overall, Riley plugs in Kyler Murray; and when Murray goes No. 1 overall, he plugs in Jalen Hurts. Saban’s greatness is never more apparent than when you consider how he has changed with the game, winning with game managers like Jake Coker and prolific passers like Tua Tagovailoa.
In contrast, LSU fell off the map without Joe Burrow this season. It will be telling how Ed Orgeron rebuilds that program over the next few years. Was his success hinged to a once-in-a-lifetime QB and a hotshot offensive coordinator? Time will tell.
Which category will Day fall into? Most everyone would bet that he’ll prove he’s in that first group. There are a whole lot of people in the Big Ten (like, say, Michigan folks) who are hoping he’s in the latter group, but I think we’ll see Ohio State in the mix for the CFP once again in 2021, even with a freshman at quarterback.
And that brings up the next part of this. Day will now have to start making the sorts of tough decisions that every head coach has to make.
Day has had it relatively easy with Fields, who this season was backed up by a pair of true freshmen. There has never been a single question about Fields as a person (he was a model citizen) or whether he should be the starter (he had maybe 3 below-average games the last 2 seasons and about 19 really, really good ones). And there was never pressure to get either of those true freshmen on the field to keep them happy. But that’s not normal life in college football at a blueblood program.
“Normal” is having 3-4 studs at QB who are itching to get on the field or they’ll transfer in the offseason — and figuring out a way to keep them happy. “Normal” is getting questions from the media about when you’re going to pick a starter. Remember how exasperated Saban was in 2018 when he had to figure out how to play Jalen Hurts and Tagovailoa?
Poor Kirby Smart. For all the success he has had at Georgia, with 4 straight seasons of finishing in the top 10, Smart is known for his inability to pick the right QB. He let Fields get away to Ohio State, and he derailed the most talented team in college football (per 247’s Team Talent Composite) by choosing the wrong QB not once, but twice.
The time is coming when Day will actually have to make those decisions. Next year’s quarterback room will include former 4-star recruits C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller, both of whom will be redshirt freshmen, plus 5-star true freshman Kyle McCord. In 2022, Ohio State will add the No. 1 recruit in the country, Quinn Ewers, to that group.
It won’t be possible to keep all 4 of those guys happy. It’s highly likely that at least 2 of them will transfer at some point, and it won’t be Day’s fault; that’s how college football works. It will be on Day to choose correctly. In the eyes of some, it will always plague Smart that he couldn’t hold on to Fields. It will always plague Kevin Sumlin that he couldn’t hold onto Kyler Murray at Texas A&M. To some extent, it will plague Meyer that he let a future Heisman winner in Burrow get away, even if Dwayne Haskins put up monster numbers.
Another relevant example is 2015, when Meyer was in an extremely tough situation. He had 2014’s original starter (Braxton Miller), 2014 Heisman candidate J.T. Barrett and the QB who actually won the 2014 national title (Cardale Jones) all on the same team. Those 3 combined for just 19 TD passes and 9 INTs on a talented, yet underachieving team. He’ll have to make these decisions carefully the next few years.
No one is doubting Day can’t coach QBs besides Fields (look at the monster numbers Haskins put up in 2018 with Day calling the plays), but there’s something fun about getting to see it develop.
The future is undoubtedly bright at Ohio State, and too many good QBs is a good problem to have. But Day will have to make these decisions carefully the next few years, because the way he is viewed will ultimately be shaped by what he does without Fields. The challenge — and fun — is just beginning.