Is Ohio State’s Ryan Day on the hot seat with a third straight loss to Michigan?

Thanksgiving week in Ohio revolves around family, gratitude and beating Michigan, and most definitely not in that order.

At a charitable event earlier this week, legendary former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel put in stark terms what The Game means to the Ohio State family. Winner on the field of nine of his 10 games against Michigan as a head coach, Tressel left no room for cheap at-least-you-tried platitudes.

“What you can’t lose sight of is that there’s nothing more important than this game,” he said. “Whenever the old guys come back, all they talk about is what their record was in that game. They don’t talk about how many Big Ten championships (they won), or if they went to the national championship. It’s, ‘I was there four or five years and this was my record.’ Nothing long-term is as big as this game.”

He concluded with a simple, effective, devastating mantra: “Don’t be the loser.”

By any reasonable standard of coaching success, Ryan Day is not a loser. He’s 56-6 as the head coach of Ohio State. Three of his losses have come in the College Football Playoff. He’s 40-0 against all Big Ten teams but one. This year his Buckeyes have won 11 straight, including two victories over top-10 teams.

It’s just that there’s this one little maize-and-blue blemish on his otherwise virtually pristine record.

In just three meetings as a head coach against Michigan, Day has already lost more Michigan games than Tressel did in 10. Day also suffers mightily in comparison with his old boss, Urban Meyer, who went 7-0 against Michigan. Heading into Saturday’s installment of The Game, Day is an anemic-by-comparison 1-2 against the Wolverines, and weathering a two-game losing streak.

Should Ohio State lose Saturday’s game — and Michigan, at home, is a 3.5-point favorite — that would mark the Buckeyes’ longest losing streak since 1995-97, and it would mean an entire class of Ohio State students would go their college careers without ever seeing an Ohio State win over The School Up North. (COVID cases within the Wolverine program forced the cancellation of Ohio State-Michigan in 2020.)

Yes, Ohio State can protest that Michigan stole signs or cheated their way to a win or bribed the refs or whatever, but the scoreboard is the scoreboard. Yet another loss to Michigan — this one coached by a dang interim while Jim Harbaugh remains suspended — would send blood pressures skyrocketing all over Ohio.

Ryan Day and Ohio State haven't beaten Michigan since 2019. (John Fisher/Getty Images)

Ryan Day and Ohio State haven’t beaten Michigan since 2019. (John Fisher/Getty Images) (John Fisher via Getty Images)

To a certain segment of the Ohio State fanbase, it doesn’t matter that Day is one missed field goal in last season’s Peach Bowl from appearing in his second national championship game — and, given how TCU performed in that game against Georgia, Ohio State likely would have won that game outright.

It doesn’t matter that Day has created a fully operational battle station of five-star player recruitment, development and preparation for the NFL; the two most recent Ohio State quarterbacks now start in the NFL, and wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. appears likely to be a league leader this time next year.

It doesn’t matter that Day has established a program whose equals can be counted on one hand. One of those equals is Michigan, and that’s what hurts the most.

Rivalry games hold an outsize importance relative to their position on the schedule. Rings, awards, trophies … sure, they’re nice bargaining chips, but what matters in college football is looking into the eyes of your neighbor, your co-worker, your cousin and telling them, with a condescending smirk, “Better luck next year.” Jobs, friendship, loves come and go, but a rivalry is forever.

Victories in the rivalry game can reshape a coach’s career. Hugh Freeze beat Nick Saban two years in a row while at Ole Miss, and that was enough to convince at least some Auburn boosters he was right for their recent head coaching vacancy. Tommy Tuberville rode his winning record against Saban — 4-3 — all the way to Congress.

Day is one game from squaring his personal record against Michigan and quashing the growing narrative surrounding his tenure. He’s also one game from the embers turning into full-on brush fires. But no matter how furious the Fire-Day contingent gets, there’s absolutely no sense in Ohio State kicking him to the curb.

To start, who could replace him? Elite-level coaches aren’t exactly sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. Any change in leadership would mean a step backward, and with so many teams now at the top of the college football mountain, even a single step back could bury Ohio State deep in the lower reaches of the top 10. (This is the same reason why the idea of Day leaping to Texas A&M for any other reason than pure greed is ludicrous. A&M is a clear, measurable step down from Ohio State.)

Yes, a loss would mean that sports talk radio and message boards in the greater Columbus region would get a whole lot chippier. Some caller to The Ryan Day Show (Thursdays at noon on WBNS/97.1) might even decide to go full Tyler from Spartanburg on the coach. But — with all due respect to the Tylers of the world — so what? Ohio State’s program is bigger than just the Michigan game. Not much bigger, true, but bigger.

If Ohio State wants a lesson in true futility, look at Auburn or Georgia Tech, two schools that almost always flail in futility against their blue-chip rivals. The Game is going to be the most-watched game of the season, and Ohio State-Michigan is, at the moment, the best rivalry in college football. A victory in The Game will stand as a legitimate championship qualifier and one of the most notable wins of the season for whoever claims it. Replacing Day would alter all that … but not in the way Ohio State fans would like.

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