Day finishing first season undefeated would be rare feat

Rob Oller
Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day makes post-game remarks to Big Ten Network after a 34-10 win over the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. [Maddie Schroeder/Dispatch]

While binge-watching the "Mission: Impossible" films — I prefer Bourne, but M:I is better escapist entertainment — it occurred that Ohio State is seven games into a similarly implausible assignment.

Win them all. Go undefeated. Do not lose.


Readers of this space know the drill. Every time the Buckeyes get on a roll, I am obligated to point out just how difficult it is to finish the season without a loss. Not just for Ohio State, which only has six perfect seasons — no losses, no ties — in 129 years (1916, 1944, 1954, 1968, 2002 and 2012), but for any team. Since 1970, typically considered the beginning of the modern era, 49 FBS schools have finished unbeaten and untied, an average of about one per season. It has happened twice since the College Football Playoff was created in 2017 (Central Florida in 2017 and Clemson in 2018.)

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More than halfway through this season shows 10 teams with no losses, including Ohio State at 7-0. That total will drop precipitously over the coming weeks, until by the end the number will be one or two.

The Buckeyes hope to have a goose egg on the “L” side of the ledger, and if it happens, it not only would mean another national championship but would rocket coach Ryan Day into extremely rarified air.

Should Ohio State win out, Day would become only its third coach to go undefeated and untied in his first full season. Urban Meyer went 12-0 in 2012 and Carroll Widdoes led OSU to a 9-0 mark in 1944.

Drilling further down, Day would join Widdoes, Milton Olander (Western Michigan, 1922), Joe McKenney (Boston College, 1928) and Chris Petersen (Boise State, 2006) as the only four coaches since 1922 — the year Ohio Stadium opened — to post a perfect record having no prior head-coaching experience at any level in any sport. (Note: Petersen coached the freshmen at UC Davis in 1987-88, but we won’t quibble over a quasi head-coaching gig.)

A handful of other first-time college football coaches have gone undefeated since then, the most recent being Larry Coker at Miami in 2001, but they previously held high school head coaching positions (Coker) or the top job in a different college sport. Bennie Oosterbaan went 9-0 as a first-year football coach at Michigan in 1948 but already had served as the Wolverines’ basketball coach. Times were different.

Of course, all the cool historical nuggets won’t matter if the Buckeyes lose on Saturday to Wisconsin. If that happens, Day becomes just another newbie coach among other first-timers who enjoyed great success.

In Bill Battle’s first season at Tennessee in 1970, the Vols limited eight opponents to fewer than 10 points as they finished 10-1. Chuck Fairbanks coached Oklahoma to a 10-1 record in 1967, the only blemish a 9-7 loss to Texas. Barry Switzer followed Fairbanks at OU and went 10-0-1 his first season. John Robinson finished his first year at Southern California 11-1, and Bret Bielema — believe it or not — went 12-1 in year one at Wisconsin (rather amazingly, Bielema won 17 of his first 18 games). More recently, Lincoln Riley went 12-2 his first season at Oklahoma, reaching the playoffs before losing to Georgia in the semifinal.

Day has not considered the history he would make by winning every game. Team externals, including how far he has come since filling in three games for Urban Meyer last season, serve only as distractions.

“I try not to think about things like that when I’m driving to and from work, because there’s so much going on that we need to get done in terms of on a daily basis, in terms of tasks,” Day said.

But he knows how he will feel after the first loss, whenever it arrives, explaining that as the head coach he will take it harder than when he was an assistant.

“It’s one of those things you worry about,” he said of losing the first one. “You feel anxious about it sometimes. All you can do as you get closer to the game is be as aggressive as you can. Go fight as hard as you can. Be the competitor.”

Day understands that coaches often are judged by their last loss, a reality that impacts even more when the expectations are as high as they are at Ohio State.

“In the back of your mind, you understand what’s at stake,” he said. “The people that are counting on you to do well, the expectations here, I get all of that.”

He gets it, but it won’t truly hit home until the first loss lands on his doorstep. That bogeyman is coming, but until then so far, so good. The quest for perfection continues.


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