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With Bill O’Brien hire, Ohio State appears to be declaring 2024 as title or bust

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Barely three weeks into the New Year and one thing has become abundantly clear in college football: Ohio State is unmistakably all-in for 2024.

To be fair, that statement tends to ring true no matter what year it is. 

The Buckeyes, after all, have consistently been a regular national title threat throughout the past few decades and the lone member of the blue-blood fellowship in the sport which has reliably avoided out of character results or any semblance of a down cycle. It’s perhaps the program’s defining trait – no matter what era you’re reexamining in the history books, OSU has started off nearly every football campaign capable of capturing a trophy between the talent on hand in Columbus and the head coach calling the shots. 

That fact felt unmistakable yet again on Thursday night as a source confirmed to FOX Sports that recent New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien would be joining Ohio State as the team’s new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. 

[Ohio State hiring Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator]

It’s a bold move in itself from head coach Ryan Day and continues an offseason full of reinvention around the Woody Hayes Center, much of which has only served to reaffirm the Buckeyes’ place in the top five of the early 2024 polls ahead of a pivotal year. 

There is no denying that O’Brien’s latest stint in Foxborough under now-former head coach Bill Belichick did not end well in 2023 – coloring much of the initial, possibly muted reaction to the hire – but the veteran coach has historically proved to be an adept offensive coordinator and quarterback developer at both the pro and college levels. 

While at Alabama just two years ago, he helped guide Bryce Young to the Heisman Trophy and had the Crimson Tide in the top 10 in scoring offense for both seasons in which he called plays in Tuscaloosa. Prior to that, he had the Houston Texans as a consistent playoff threat and was around for several of Tom Brady’s best statistical years with the Patriots. Throw in an adept job navigating a tough situation while leading a Penn State program out of the Jerry Sandusky aftermath and there’s plenty on the resume to sit up and take notice that O’Brien’s next career move was to head to Ohio State.

Maybe more notable is the message sent by the man who made such a hire. 

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There is no question that Day, despite a still hard-to-fathom 56-8 mark as a head coach, has felt the heat emanating beneath his seat from his own fan base the past few months. Though outsiders cannot understand where such sentiment comes from, given that overall record, one only has to look at how sullen and despondent the 44-year-old was in the wake of a third consecutive loss to rival Michigan last November – the measuring stick above all measuring sticks for the program. 

The fact that the Wolverines went on to win the College Football Playoff national championship in Houston only stressed things further. Jim Harbaugh may have it better than anybody right now, but his bogey man-turned-counterpart on the other side of The Game certainly does not.

So rather than doubling down on the process that has delivered a winning percentage of 88%, Day has instead responded to those eight losses by changing course. 

In hiring O’Brien, that means almost assuredly giving up playcalling and having Day assume his previously stated goal of being far more of a CEO-type on the headset. That was supposed to be the case last year as wide receivers coach Brian Hartline bumped up his title to offensive coordinator. 

Both in practice and during games, though, that didn’t wind up happening. The head coach continued to bury his head in the playsheet during every offensive series and bark out calls that never seemed to get executed at the level they should have been. Ohio State’s offense struggled more than at any point since Jim Tressell’s time in charge and saw the Buckeyes productivity dip nearly two touchdowns on average to just 30.5 points per game.

Enter O’Brien, who will be tasked with not only taking that off Day’s hands moving forward, but with jumpstarting and reshaping the entire unit.

It’s far from the only thing that Day has done to address previous shortcomings this offseason. Two other OSU assistants were not retained in safeties coach Perry Eliano and special teams coach Parker Fleming. With O’Brien entering, is the writing on the wall for current QB coach Corey Dennis?

Personnel-wise, Day has been equally as savvy as he’s been ruthless. Starting quarterback Kyle McCord seemed to take the hint and hit the portal, ultimately landing at a rebuilding Syracuse. In the wake of a lifeless Cotton Bowl loss to Missouri, the Buckeyes didn’t waste much time after that in going after prized portal target Will Howard – a key member of Kansas State‘s run to the Big 12 title who has one more year of eligibility. 

Will Howard and key Ohio State players returning in 2024 | Number One CFB Show

All-SEC running back Quinshon Judkins followed not long after and the offense was buoyed further by Alabama center Seth McLaughlin. Throw in those who opted to bypass the NFL for another season in Columbus like wide receiver Emeka Egbuka and tailback TreVeyon Henderson and the vibes are certainly much improved surrounding an offense that was once the Big Ten’s most prolific but was instead the most confounding in 2023.

The momentum from all of this is also a bit of a double-edged sword for Day too, the confluence of the external pressures of being the head coach of Ohio State combined with new internal dynamics he’s navigating. 

To start with, there is a new school president in Ted Carter, a hard-charging former admiral who has consistently spoken about the importance of football in his previous stops leading the Naval Academy and, recently, while at Nebraska. Changing shades of red and taking the gig in Columbus is very much a legacy-defining move and you can bet that the onetime hockey player won’t sit back and see the university’s front porch take another reputation-hit on or off the field while he’s in charge. 

There is also the matter of a new athletic director set to take charge in Columbus. Having somebody assume that job always prompts a flurry of nerves around town when the fresh face around the department didn’t hire the head coach, but it feels extremely apt now as veteran administrator Gene Smith retires. 

Though the latter’s replacement was hired with an eye on ramping up the Buckeyes’ NIL efforts and navigating the school through big existential issues ahead, it can’t exactly be reassuring to Day that new AD Ross Bjork‘s most notable move while in charge of Texas A&M came just three months ago when he fired Jimbo Fisher – $77 million buyout be damned. 

Such percolating thoughts are not quite pertinent just yet, with Ohio State appearing fully convinced that Day is no John Cooper redux by giving him the latitude and resources to make necessary changes as a path forward. The jury will ultimately be out on the hire of O’Brien – and the dozens of other major moves proceeding and following it – until late November rolls around. 

In the interim, what is unmistakable about Ohio State right now is that the school is certainly giving every indication – via both words and actions – that the 2024 season is capable of being one of the seasons in program lore.

In concert with engineering such moves prior to kickoff this fall, Day has shown that he is acutely aware of what is at stake. There are no more excuses left to make. 

Not with a three-game losing streak to Michigan weighing upon everyone in scarlet and gray. Not with the much-anticipated 12-team playoff arriving in college football, providing additional avenues to the ultimate prize. Not with the arrivals of O’Brien and a slew of others using the doubt that has built up in recent years as fuel heading into a critical year in Columbus.

The Buckeyes and their head coach are all-in for 2024 – every move they’ve made has only reaffirmed that. 

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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