Ryan Day must answer Ohio State’s QB question before anything else for Buckeyes in 2024

Don’t dwell on the Cotton Bowl loss. Don’t look at the count-down clock to the next matchup with That Team Up North. 

Ohio State coach Ryan Day is heading into what might be his most uncomfortable offseason yet in Columbus. No. 9 Missouri beat No. 7 Ohio State 14-3 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on Friday, which allowed those two issues to pop up. The criticism is two-fold now.

Can’t beat Michigan. Can’t win bowl games. Just like … 

Everybody in Columbus knows which coach fills in that blank. Sure, the Missouri loss allowed a chance to retweet the fact Ohio State is 2-13 against the SEC in bowl games, but there were catches to this, of course. Marvin Harrison Jr., the Buckeyes’ two-time All-American wide receiver, opted out. Starting quarterback Kyle McCord transferred to Syracuse. These games will be different in the 12-team College Football Playoff era. It’s easy to scrap that. 

The loss to the Tigers is not a deal-breaker. 

Michigan? Different story. Nov. 30, 2024 might be on the eternal count-down clock, but the Buckeyes have road games at Oregon and Penn State next season before they can even fathom breaking a three-game losing streak to the Wolverines. While that is an every-day conversation, that moment is way too far down the road. 

Who will start at quarterback for Ohio State in 2024? 

The biggest issue at Ohio State right is at the most-important position. That – more than anything – will put the most pressure on Day heading into 2024. If the loss to Missouri exposed anything, then it’s that unsettled doesn’t even begin to describe the quarterback situation. 

The bar is absurdly high since Day joined Urban Meyer’s staff in 2017. Ohio State quarterbacks averaged 3,563 yards, 39 TDs and six interceptions from 2017-22. J.T. Barrett, Dwayne Haskins, Justin Fields and C.J. Stroud combined for a 5-0 record against Michigan in that stretch. Haskins, Fields and Stroud were Heisman Trophy finalists in four of those seasons, and all three were first-round NFL Draft picks. 

McCord passed for 3,170 yards, 24 TDs and six interceptions, but he threw two costly interceptions in a 30-24 loss to Michigan in the regular-season finale. On Dec. 3, Day addressed whether McCord or Devin Brown would start in the Cotton Bowl.

“I can’t sit here and tell you I know for sure about any of those things right now, but everyone’s gonna have an opportunity to compete and get after it during the bowl practice,” Day said. 

McCord entered the transfer portal the next day. He transferred to Syracuse on Dec. 17 – a decision that will be propped against whoever starts for the Buckeyes in 2024 and beyond. 

McCord was the quarterback Ohio State took instead of Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy, who will be starting in the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes also had Quinn Ewers for one season; a quarterback that will be starting for Texas in the Sugar Bowl. That is a lot of what-coulda-been. Ewers left because C.J. Stroud stayed. The McCord-McCarthy debate is going to last for a while. 

MORE: TSN experts predict CFP semifinals

All of that adds to the pressure of Day’s quandary heading into 2024 – and none of that was answered in the Cotton Bowl.

Is Devin Brown the answer? He completed 4 of 6 passes for 20 yards against Missouri before leaving with an injury. Brown suffered a finger injury before last year’s spring game and a shoulder injury against Penn State on Oct. 21. Freshman Lincoln Kienholz completed 6 of 17 passes for 86 yards in Brown’s place; a product of not getting enough first-team reps.

That means a portal quarterback – and the three best proven options available are Washington State’s Cameron Ward, Kansas State’s Will Howard and Oregon State’s DJ Uiagalelei. 

MORE: Latest on the QB transfer portal market

Which one is best? Ward put up the best numbers with 48 TDs and 16 interceptions the last two seasons with the Cougars. Howard won a Big 12 championship with Kansas State. Uiagalelei has the benefit of playing for a program that expects national championships in Clemson.

Even if Harrison leaves for the NFL – which seems likely – the Buckeyes have enough talent at receiver to make any of those quarterbacks a Heisman contender. Emeka Egbuka could bypass the 2024 NFL Draft. Carnell Tate, Brandon Inniss, Noah Rogers are up next. Jeremiah Smith, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2024, has been compared to Julio Jones. That’s the expectation, of course. 

MORE: 2023 Sporting News All-America team

McCord, however, showed what happens when the bar is not met, and the fallout for Day would be severe if next year’s plan doesn’t work out. The big-game critics are already out in full force. Now, there is an equal sample size for Meyer – who was 13-4 against top-10 teams and 6-2 against top-five teams; and Day – who is 10-7 against top-10 teams and 2-5 against top-five teams. Of course, the biggest separator is Meyer is 7-0 against Michigan while Day fell to 1-3 this season. 

Ohio State coaches vs. top-10 and top-5 opponents

COACH TOP 10 TOP 5
Jim Tressel 10-8 4-8
Urban Meyer 13-4 6-2
Ryan Day 10-7 2-5

Meyer had quarterback controversies too – but those battles such as Cardale Jones vs. J.T. Barrett in 2015 and Dwyane Haskins vs. Joe Burrow in 2018 had at least two really good answers. Day does not have that luxury in the present tense. 

That loss to Missouri made that very real in Columbus – a talking point that will stretch into the spring when the quarterback battle begins to intensify. 

Who will be that starting quarterback? 

Day has to get that one right before you can talk about Michigan. 

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