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Day, Ohio State refocus on Cotton Bowl after up-and-down season

Ryan Day Ohio State Ryan Day - Getty Images

Ohio State faces Missouri Friday in the Cotton Bowl, but the Buckeyes have their sights set on a bigger picture.

The 2023 season had a similar script to the previous two – Ohio State rolled through the Big Ten, established itself as a National Championship threat, and then had things come crashing down at the hands of its bitter rival. 

A 30-24 loss to Michigan on Nov. 25 was the Buckeyes’ third in the last three years to the Wolverines, following a stretch of eight straight wins between 2012 and 2019. Unlike last season, when USC lost to Utah in the Pac-12 title game, the Buckeyes didn’t get any favours to help punch their ticket to the playoff.

Head coach Ryan Day will field a different looking lineup against Missouri than he did much of the regular season. Heisman finalist Marvin Harrison Jr. is with the team but won’t play against the Tigers, opting to preserve himself for April’s NFL Draft, where he’s expected to be a top-five pick. And quarterback Kyle McCord is gone, after entering the transfer portal earlier in the month and committing to Syracuse last week. 

Thirteen other Buckeyes have made their intent to transfer known, including running back Chip Trayanum, who signed with Kentucky, and wide receiver Julian Fleming, a former five-star recruit that is yet to commit to a new program.

A win over Missouri won’t come close to accomplishing Ohio State’s goal from the outset of the season, but will provide a bit of consolation, at least to the players that will be active on Friday.

“We were really down after [the loss to Michigan],” senior linebacker Steele Chambers said this week. “[Day] did a good job just getting everyone together, and relaying the information that we still have a job to do. We still have a game to win at the end of the year. We can’t go out with a loss.”

Ohio State is 56-7 in parts of five seasons under Day, but has finished with a loss in three of the four seasons since he took over permanently in 2019. That includes last year, when the Buckeyes reached the playoff semifinal but lost 42-41 in the Peach Bowl to Georgia, the eventual national champion.

And things are getting tougher moving forward.

Washington, Oregon, USC and UCLA are moving to the Big Ten from the dissolved Pac-12 next season, meaning the Buckeyes won’t have to wait until late-November for their first major challenge in 2024. But with the CFP expanding from four teams to 12, there’s potentially space for a team to absorb even two losses and still find itself playing in January.

Then there’s the reinforcements.

With Harrison outgoing, Ohio State replenished its wide receiver corps by signing five-star recruit Jeremiah Smith, who’s widely touted as the top player in the class of 2024. Smith, who had 88 catches and 1,376 yards as a senior at Chaminade-Madonna Prep in Hollywood, Fla., initially committed to Ohio State in December 2022 but had the program holding its breath, finally signing a letter of intent last Wednesday.

Ohio State also signed a Canadian, adding four-star tight end Max Leblanc, who’s from Montreal but attended Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he caught 49 passes as a senior. Leblanc received offers from over 30 NCAA programs, including Alabama, Michigan and Florida State, and could also fit into the Buckeyes’ plans as early as next season, with senior tight end Cade Stover expected to depart for the NFL.

And then there’s quarterback, where Ohio State added another prospect in four-star recruit Air Noland, who may challenge for the starting spot next season. 

But first, there’s an opportunity for Devin Brown, who served as McCord’s backup this season and could be using the Cotton Bowl as a chance to audition to be Day’s top option in 2024.

If there are any nerves involved, Brown isn’t letting on.

“I’m just so pumped to get out there and finally play,” Brown said. “Even my family has been asking me, ‘How are you not nervous?’...I’m like, ‘No, I’m not feeling anything.’

“I’ve been playing tackle football since I was seven years old,” he added. “It’s just a bigger crowd, that’s it. It’s the same game.”