Ryan Day's reality: Beating Michigan in 2024 is the only thing that matters for Ohio State

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – What will be different in 2024? 

That, no doubt, is the internal question started for Ohio State coach Ryan Day after a third straight loss to Michigan in The Game. This is the 365-days-a-year rivalry that defines, makes and breaks coaches from both schools. 

No. 3 Michigan beat No. 2 Ohio State 30-24 on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. The Buckeyes have lost three in a row to the Wolverines for the first time since 1995-97. Day fell to 1-3 against Michigan, and this is Threat Level Midnight in Columbus. It was more of the same. 

It was supposed to be different after a 47-21 loss in 2021. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh made a "standing-on-third" jab at Day. That led to the hiring of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, and revenge seemed inevitable. 

BENDER: Michigan's 2023 story is far from over

It was supposed to be different after a 45-23 loss in 2022. The Buckeyes morphed into a win-and-grit formula with a balanced offense, top-10 defense and the nation's best wide receiver in Marvin Harrison Jr. This would be a top-five victory that restored order in the Big Ten.

Not so much. The Michigan in-person scouting and sign-stealing scandal at least could offer plausible deniability for those last two losses. There are no excuses left now. Harbaugh was not even on the sideline

The ugly truth? The Wolverines were just a smidge better in a game where the margin for error is defined by running the football, turnovers and the timing of a few coaching decisions. 

Michigan (12-0) will go to the Big Ten championship and has the inside track on a third straight College Football Playoff appearance. With the lack of chaos in the other Power 5 conferences, the back-door to the CFP for the Buckeyes (11-1) likely remains closed this season. 

That is going to hit different in Columbus for the next 365 days. 

"Hard to describe," Day said. "Just sick. The fact we came up short in this game. You worked your whole year for it, and you came up short."

Day will get nit–picked for two decisions more than anything else from the latest loss to the Wolverines. The first was a decision to punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 46-yard line on the game's second possession. 

"Early in the game, at midfield, I just didn't want to give them any momentum," he said. "I wanted to pin them down and play defense." 

Yet he allowed Michigan acting coach Sherrone Moore to be the aggressor instead. The Wolverines converted three fourth downs in the first half that led to a pair of touchdowns. Michigan built a 14-3 lead. 

Then in a scene that resembled last year's CFP semifinal loss to Georgia, Day settled for a 52-yard field goal with under a minute to go before the end of the half. Jayden Fielding missed, and Michigan held a 14-10 lead. 

"I felt like at 52 yards, it was worth a field goal there," Day said. "If you didn't get it – what was it? A fourth-and-two or three, somewhere in there, you get no points. It was worth the opportunity to kick the field goal at least. … I felt like that was the right move."

Ohio State still tied the game at 17 and even closed the Wolverines' lead to 27-24 on a Harrison touchdown with 8:05 remaining. Michigan, however, scratched out a seven-minute drive and another field goal, their fourth scoring drive of the second half.

MORE: Marvin Harrison's big day not enough for Buckeyes

The Wolverines had 156 rushing yards on 4.0 yards per carry. The Buckeyes had 108 rushing yards on 3.7 yards per carry. Any student of The Game knows that math favors the winner. The Wolverines also had zero turnovers. Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord threw two interceptions.

Blake Corum
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"In this game you've got to win the rushing yards and you've got to win the turnover battle. We did neither of those things, so if that's not going to happen we're not going to win this game," Day said. 

Now, Ohio State has 365 days to change that. Michigan is a serious problem. Gone are the days of what is supposed to happen with a rivalry the Buckeyes have dominated for most of the 21st century. 

That falls on Day more than anyone else. Day is 56-7 as the Buckeyes' head coach, but he is 1-3 against Michigan and 2-5 against top-five teams. The other 40 victories against Big Ten competition do not matter as much. 

That led to speculation that Texas A&M might offer a parachute, but that is not the right play for Day. There is no logical reason to leave a program like Ohio State to take a job in College Station – especially not if unreasonable expectations are a factor. 

Day remains the coach without a national title most likely to get one given with what he has in Columbus. Ohio State has made three CFP appearances and will be the 12-team CFP version of Kansas or North Carolina in college basketball. 

Yet he needs to solve the Michigan problem in 2024. John Cooper – who finished 2-10-1 against the Wolverines from 1988-2000 – could never get past that.  Day needs to beat Michigan – and preferably a team led by Harbaugh – to eliminate the Cooper comparisons before they fester into a toxicity level that is too hard to squash. That started in earnest after the 1997 loss with Cooper. Day will have to deal with a similar problem now. 

What will be different next year? Maybe the NCAA investigation knocks the legs from under the Michigan program. Maybe Harbaugh bolts for the NFL. Maybe the Wolverines lose too much to the NFL, including quarterback J.J. McCarthy.

Some of those things might happen, but that is not enough to derail a hard truth that Ohio State has to face three years running. Michigan is on top of The Game and the Big Ten, and you can talk about what is supposed to happen all you want. Ohio State needs to change that on the field, and that opportunity was missed at the Big House on the biggest stage of the year. 

If that does not happen in 2024, then what will the conversation about Day be? 

That is an answer nobody in Columbus wants to think about now.

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Bill Bender is a national college football writer for The Sporting News.