There are four teams — and thus four coaches — in the College Football Playoff and obviously each one feels enormous pressure to win two games and capture the national title.
Still, there is pressure and then there is pressure. Kirby Smart won it all a year ago, delivering Georgia its first national championship in four decades. He then lost 15 players to the NFL draft, and returned to the playoffs anyway.
Sonny Dykes is in his first year at TCU, but orchestrated a thrilling 12-1 season to make the Horned Frogs the first school from his state (not Texas, not Texas A&M) to reach the playoffs.
Jim Harbaugh has Michigan back in the playoffs in consecutive years. While Wolverine fans would certainly covet a national title, or at least a victory over TCU to get to the title game, with a 25-2 record the past two seasons, including two victories over rival Ohio State, Harbaugh is entrenched in Ann Arbor.
And then there is Ohio State’s Ryan Day.
Day is 45-5 in his five years in Columbus, a spectacular mark by virtually any standard. His only losses came at the hands of Clemson and Alabama in the playoffs, Oregon last season and … those two at the hands of Michigan, which is what complicates everything.
The 45-23 drubbing last month left the program as flattened as an 11-1 team can be. It was once again out-toughed and outcoached by its rival. At the end, Ohio Stadium felt like a funeral as fans shuffled out, mumbling about a program they saw as slipping from its Urban Meyer standards.
“Our No. 1 goal every year is to win the rivalry game, and that didn’t happen,” Day told ESPN. “When you win 11 straight games but lose that game, you feel like the season’s a failure.”
In the meantime, Ohio State’s recruiting stumbled by the relative standards of Ohio State. The no. 1 recruit in the Class of 2024, quarterback Dylan Raiola, decommitted. Day also lost multiple final battles in the Class of 2023, including failing to land an elite pass rusher.
It felt like it was going to be a long offseason before Ohio State got a crack at redemption. The Buckeyes’ reprieve came courtesy of a playoff bid, backing into the fourth spot. That was the good news. The bad? They get mighty Georgia in Atlanta. The Bulldogs are 6.5-point favorites.
The counterbalance of pressure is opportunity, so this works both ways.
Day has a chance to immediately reverse the narrative about his program by beating Georgia and potentially even besting the Wolverines in what would be an epically tense national title game.
Or Ohio State can get run out of the joint by the Bulldogs, reaffirming that the Buckeyes aren’t legitimate national title contenders at this point and renewing questions about Day.
Day will gladly take it, though.
“Sitting around for a week and knowing that the season may be over is a hard feeling,” he said. “It’s not good. Then, to have life put back into you, knowing that you have another opportunity. Now, you have to play with no regrets. When you have a second shot at this thing that maybe you didn’t have a week or two or three weeks ago, it gives you that perspective that maybe you didn’t have a month ago.”
Day took over the Buckeyes from Meyer, who went 83-9 in Columbus and won the 2014 national title (to go with the two he won at Florida). The 43-year-old Day has proven to be less controversial and more personable than his former boss. Ohio State fans want him to succeed.
Meyer is one of the two or three greatest college coaches of this era. When he “retired” after the 2019 Rose Bowl, it meant handing Day a roaring juggernaut as a first job, but also almost impossibly high standards to maintain.
It also brought questions about whether his success thus far is his own, or residual. There was a reason it stung when in 2021 Harbaugh declared, “sometimes the people standing on third base think they hit a triple. But they didn’t.”
Then the sentiment was reinforced, not refuted.
That was last month, though. This is something new. Georgia is very similar to Michigan, fast and physical, which means if the Buckeyes’ problems are systematic, then they’ll be exposed again.
If so, Ryan Day’s offseason will be even more uncomfortable than before, and the lure of the NFL might increase. Or things get answered and order restored, with the coach suddenly celebrated.
“The only way you move forward is to get back into the game,” Day said.
Saturday at 8 pm ET in Atlanta is the first game of the rest of his career.