COLUMBUS — Ryan Day has been the Ohio State football coach for nearly 48 full months.
This December quite likely has been the hardest one yet.
He and his staff are preparing their third College Football Playoff appearance while trying to figure out what their fifth Buckeye roster will look like.
The former includes gameplanning for a Georgia team that is not only ranked No. 1 but the defending national champion, and one that gets to play the Peach Bowl in its own backyard (Atlanta) at that.
The latter has probably never been more difficult as high school football player recruiting runs into college football player recruiting, the latter a broadly expanding activity thanks to recent rules changes.
Both types of recruiting have come to be defined, at least at times, by the specter of compensation in the form if payments for name, image and likeness, something that has introduced more landmines to an already murky landscape.
All the while, Day is dealing with the expectations of an Ohio State fan base of whom one of his predecessors, John Cooper, once said, “They’re with you win or tie — and don’t tie many.”
Day was warned of that before he took over for Urban Meyer on Jan. 2, 2019, but over the last two years seeing no doubt has become believing for the New England native.
The Buckeyes have only lost three times, but they were arguably the three Day could least afford to lose: A big interconference showdown with Oregon and two meetings with Michigan.
Those have left his team trying to pick up the pieces and a fanbase reeling with disappointment and doubts about their team’s place in the college football pecking order and Day’s ability to maintain it.
At the announcement he was going to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, Cooper also revealed another truth that is sometimes more convenient than others for Day. Cooper confided that most Saturdays he could look across the field during pregame warmups and feel pretty good his team was going to come out on top thanks to the recruiting program he put in place.
With Meyer and Day enhancing that operation after Jim Tressel tweaked it, that is likely now more true than ever — and it makes the losses stand out all the more.
“I mean, we all have certain expectations and we all have goals,” Day said. “And when you don’t reach those goals, you have to identify what those things are to get them addressed. But also, when you go through times like this you recognize, first off, the things you gotta get better at, but also it gives you a really good idea of where everybody’s at in the program and kind of where you stand.
“Because when things are going well, everybody’s with you. And when something goes wrong, you kind of find out where people stand. And so I think we have a pretty good feel for that right now.”
Day’s players spent a year trying to recover from Ohio State’s first loss to Michigan since 2011. Then they got beat again last month.
On the recruiting trail, another top 10 effort has been building for more than a year, but Day’s class sustained some losses in recent weeks, and the Buckeyes struck out on a few prospects that could have made the class even better.
Meanwhile, that second loss to Michigan in as many years knocked the Buckeyes down, but they are not out of the national championship race.
So on both fronts, December has presented plenty of reasons to feel good about the state of things and optimism for the future.
And yet there is also room for doubt about what’s next.
If Ohio State can’t close on some of it’s biggest recruiting battles, can the Buckeyes keep pace with the beasts of the Southeastern Conference?
Did the Buckeyes make the playoff only to lose soundly to Georgia on New Year’s Eve?
If they can no longer dominate Michigan, are there even more problems on the horizon?
Time off for the minds of fans to wander might not have been good, but Day hopes it has helped his players find out what they need to do to put their best foot forward against the Bulldogs and ring out 2022 on a high.
“I can tell you that the guys in the program, they’ve been working their tail off the last month,” Day said. “I think when you look at the 19 (recruits) we brought in here, these are some of the best players in the country, and these guys understand what’s going on here, and they understand what an unbelievable culture we have here. You see a lot of transfers going on, everything like that. You look at our team, there’s really not a lot of that going on. Why? I think it’s because we have a strong culture here. Guys appreciate the way that they’re being developed and everything like that.
“Years and seasons and life doesn’t always go the way you plan. It’s about how you react to it and how you respond to it, and that’s what our focus is on right now.”
The most recent loss to Michigan might have come as a shock, but the College Football Playoff presents a second chance nearly without precedent.
“We’re not gonna overreact,” Day said. “As much as that loss hurts, we’re not gonna overreact on it. It’s not worth it. We have a game against Georgia ahead of us that we’re focusing on. We’re hammering recruiting and looking to adapt to what’s going on across the country. And I know that the program is in a great place even though we did lose that game and it hurts. I mean, that’s our goal every year, you can’t walk away from it. But at the end of the day, we have some really good people in this program. We have really good talent, really good coaches and recruit really good people.”
Ohio State vs. Georgia, 8 p.m., ESPN, 1410
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