Could Ryan Day be a top-20 head coach in college football in only his third season?
After becoming the interim head coach in the early part of the 2018 season, Day has gone on to win 22 games for the Buckeyes. His only losses to date are the Fiesta Bowl in the 2019 College Football Playoff and the 2020 National Championship. As the head coach, he has also won two conference championships for Ohio State, taking them to two College Football Playoffs. He only has one CFP win, the revenge victory over Clemson in the 2020 Sugar Bowl.
Day is also proving to be a top recruiting coach. While his first class was only a modest one by Buckeye standards, ranked 15th nationally by 247Sports, his classes keep getting better and better. His 2020 class was ranked 5th nationally, while the 2021 class is second. There is still plenty of time between now and 2022 National Signing Day, but the Buckeyes currently lead the country in five-star commitments from the 2022 class.
After only a few years, is Day a top-20 coach? Or is he a flash in the pan?
Is Ryan Day Already A Top-20 Head Coach In CFB?
Why Day Might Not Be A Top Head Coach
There are some valid points against Day. For one, he has really only had one full season as a head coach.
He had three games as the interim head coach in 2018, winning resounding victories over Oregon State, Rutgers, and TCU. Of course, none of those team ever represented much of a threat. TCU was the most intimidating of the bunch, and they went on to win the Cheez-It Bowl against the 7-5 Cal Bears by three points.
Day had a full season in 2019, which ended in a heart-breaking defeat to Clemson. But the 2020 season was shortened due to COVID-19, and Day only coached seven games. He didn’t even coach every single game for Ohio State, having to miss the Michigan State game due to contact tracing.
So the argument is that the sample size is not large enough.
The second argument is that Urban Meyer left him in good hands. While he was at Ohio State, Meyer was one of the best active coaches in college football. He led the Buckeyes to the first ever CFP National Championship, and maintained the standard that he set.
So while some coaches get credit for rebuilding broken programs, like P.J. Fleck, Matt Campbell, or Mack Brown, Day never had to rebuild.
Debunking The Arguments Against Day
While Day might not have a large total of games in general, he does have a good resume against other top coaches.
In 2019, Day’s Buckeyes thoroughly dismantled Luke Fickell‘s Bearcats (a 42-0 win), Tom Allen‘s Hoosiers (52-0), Pat Fitzgerald‘s Wildcats (52-3), and Paul Cryst‘s Badgers (38-7). Ohio State also defeated James Franklin‘s Nittany Lions and then beat Wisconsin again in the Big Ten Championship.
He followed that with more wins against Allen, Franklin, and Fitzgerald. He also demolished Dabo Swinney in the 2020 Sugar Bowl.
All of the coaches mentioned above were either nominated for the Bobby Dodd Trophy watchlist (along with Day), or recently listed by a well-respected media outlet as a Top-20 list.
Against the aforementioned coaches, Day is 10-1. If those games were one full season, that team would be a top seed for the CFP.
If Day’s remarkable coaching tenure was a one-hit wonder, what are the odds he would pull of that kind of winning percentage against football’s top coaches?
As for his lack of a need to rebuild, he has taken Meyer’s legacy and built on top of it. Meyer only made it to two CFPs, which Day has already matched. He only won three Big Ten Championships, the third one while Day was heavily involved with the offense and already named the head coach in waiting. Day has won two in his first two years as a full-time head coach.
While Meyer had a top-five recruiting class almost every year he was in Columbus, Day hasn’t fully relied on Meyer recruits. Day’s star quarterback transferred to Ohio State after Day was already wearing the head coach’s headset. If Justin Fields hadn’t transferred, Day’s starting quarterback would have been either Tate Martell or Chris Chuganov. Trey Sermon was another key transfer under the Day regime that played an instrumental part in the Buckeyes’ 2020 season.
The 2021 Ohio State Buckeyes look ready to do serious damage, and Day recruits are starting to outnumber Meyer recruits. Day has, at minimum, sustained Meyer’s legacy, which is no easy task.
Day Is A Victim Of High Expectations
Over the last 20 years, Ohio State has been one of the most consistent programs in the country. Three different head coaches have played for a total of five National Championships. Only Alabama and LSU have played for or won more BCS/CFP National Championships than Ohio State.
Perhaps Day isn’t as highly regarded because his expectations are too high to be surpassed. The only thing he could do to exceed the expectations placed on him is to win a national championship.
That is no doubt the goal of the Buckeyes’ head coach no matter who he is. But there are only five active head coaches who have won a national championship. If Day’s sole National Championship appearance would have turned out differently, he would be in an extremely select group of coaches. Would one game be the difference between being in the top-six and being left out of the top-20 altogether?
It’s clear why coaches like Fickell, Campbell, Allen, and others get credit for taking downtrodden programs and turning them into top-ranked teams. All three of those coaches have set new milestones for their respective teams in the last few years. Day clearly had a better start than these coaches.
But others, like Kirby Smart, Dan Mullen, and Lincoln Riley should have similar exceptions as Day. In fact, Smart should have higher expectations due to his recruiting classes. Both Smart and Mullen have two of the best recruiting bases in the country, yet have combined for one conference Championship and one CFP win. Why aren’t they the victims of the same expectations?
While some media outlets don’t think Day is a top head coach, the recruits in the 2021 and 2022 classes do. To be honest, that is probably all Day cares about.