2024 has been busy for the Ohio State football program. A year of underwhelming play, losing to the rival again, being unable to do anything in the bowl game, and then watching said rival win it all has seemingly kicked Ryan Day into gear. The Ohio State offensive coordinator (in name only) in 2023 was Brian Hartline but there will be a new play-caller in Columbus in 2024.
The Buckeyes have had an eventful few weeks leading up to the hiring of a new offensive coordinator. Will Howard, Seth McLaughlin, and Quinshon Judkins transferred in to reload the offense. Elsewhere in the Transfer Portal, the Buckeyes fended off Georgia to land elite safety Caleb Downs from Alabama.
In addition to having a massive Early National Signing Day, Ohio State learned that crucial playmakers like TreVeyon Henderson, Denzel Burke, Jaylahn Tuimoloau, and a handful of others will be returning. Going into 2024, Ohio State is fully reloading a squad that was, realistically, a decision or two away from playing in the College Football Playoff.
Now, Day made the impressive decision to take a step back and bring in an experienced and successful offensive coordinator, Bill O’Brien.
Bill O’Brien, the New Ohio State Offensive Coordinator
As a playcaller, O’Brien has had numerous stops:
2001-2002 Georgia Tech
2009-2011 New England Patriots
2012-2013 Penn State (as Head Coach)
2014-2020 Houston Texans (as Head Coach)
2023 New England Patriots
O’Brien has been around plenty of talent and greatness. Perhaps the most impressive feat was being hired by both Nick Saban and Bill Belichick (twice). It was noted that Day was looking for an experienced playcaller as well as someone with NFL experience. O’Brien checked just about every box you could ask for.
A Rough Start
Much has been made of O’Brien in his time in Houston. Rightfully so, because it ended in disaster. However, let’s look back at his time as a playcaller in his various spots. He had a rough start, to say the least.
At Georgia Tech, it was his first chance. The 2001 Yellow Jackets scored 29.3 points per game (30 in FBS) and amassed 417.9 yards per game (34th in FBS). In 2002, they struggled to the tune of 21.5 points and 374.7 yards per game. His first gig was not as great as later projects.
While at Duke, his offenses managed 16.1 and 14.9 points per game. Given, the talent level at early-2000s Georgia Tech and Duke was vastly different than what he got to work with later on.
O’Brien in the NFL
After the Duke stint, O’Brien spent time learning under the NFL GOAT, Belichick. He went from just an offensive assistant (2007), to wide receivers coach (2008), to quarterbacks coach (2009-2010). As the quarterbacks coach, O’Brien was also tasked with calling the offense.
That 2009 team finished with the sixth-best scoring offense and third-best total offense. 2010 was the best regular season the Patriots had since their 2007 perfect mark and O’Brien’s offense was a big reason why. New England finished with the best scoring and eighth-best total offense in the NFL and finished the regular season 14-2.
In 2011, O’Brien got his shot as the official offensive coordinator and called an offense that featured some guy named Tom Brady. That year, the Patriots offense finished third in the NFL in scoring and second in total offense. That team went 13-3 in the regular season before ultimately falling in Super Bowl XLVI.
O’Brien’s Nittany Lions
Instead of interviewing for the vacant Jacksonville Jaguars job, O’Brien interviewed and accepted the vacancy at Penn State. He had the near-impossible task of keeping the program afloat amidst NCAA sanctions. In two years, Penn State went 15-9 and was ineligible for postseason play due to the aforementioned sanctions.
The 2012 Penn State offense scored 29.1 points per game and moved the ball 417.5 yards per game. Then, the following year, O’Brien’s offense scored 28.7 points and amassed 433.2 points per game. In those two years, the Nittany Lions beat three different ranked opponents.
In what could be good news for the Buckeyes, O’Brien coached up future NFL draft pick Allen Robinson. The talented receiver went off for 2,450 yards and 17 touchdowns in two years. Robinson’s 2013 marks of 97 receptions and 1,432 yards are still Penn State single-season records by a wide margin.
Both Matt McGloin (2012) and Christian Hackenberg (2013) had career years under O’Brien’s tutelage.
Head Coach and GM in Houston
Then, after two years at Penn State, O’Brien took over the Houston Texans. It would end up being the job that has defined his career to this point and recency bias is undefeated.
His time in Houston was, overall, below average. He finished with a 52.48 record and a 2-4 playoff record. His Texans teams finished in the top half of the NFL in scoring just three times and in total offense twice. In his six full seasons, O’Brien’s Texans finished with a losing record just once. That one time was due to an injury to pre-allegation Deshaun Watson who, objectively, was very good.
Houston won the AFC South four times in his six full years but how his tenure ended is what has defined O’Brien’s NFL tenure. He was named General Manager prior to the 2020 season, traded away one of the franchise’s greatest receivers for pennies, and started the following year 0-4.
The Saban Reclamation Program
Despite flaming out, Alabama decided to bring O’Brien in to fill the vacancy that Steve Sarkisian left after the Tide won the National Title. This stop was more successful than his previous stops.
That 2021 Alabama team continued the standard of excellence by winning the SEC yet again and advancing to the National Championship. They were eventually dispatched by Georgia, of course. However, Alabama’s offense was sixth in the nation in scoring (39.9) and eighth in total offense (488.3). The cherry on top was the fact that O’Brien’s quarterback, Bryce Young, took home the Heisman Trophy.
The 2022 squad took a step back, only finishing 11-2 and missing the College Football Playoff. Those two losses were in high-scoring affairs, so O’Brien’s offense did what it could. The Tide ended up fourth in the nation in scoring (41.1) and 11th in total offense (477.1).
New England Round Two
Last year, the new Ohio State offensive coordinator spent the season back in New England for a second stint. Needless to say, that offense was not quite as good as his first stint. Mac Jones is not Brady.
His offense finished nearly at the bottom of the NFL. Given, the talent level in New England in its current state would make calling a competent offense difficult for even the best play callers.
Heading to Ohio State, there are reasons for optimism as well as pessimism. Recency bias says that O’Brien will not be able to call a better offense than what Day has been. However, when given talent, the offense can move. Both of his Alabama squads, while not as exciting as past teams, were among the elite.
O’Brien ran a balanced offense at Alabama. He ran the ball about 36 times per game and threw the ball about 36 times. With as many explosive game-changing talents on Ohio State’s offense, O’Brien can bring out the best. Realistically, the biggest question will be on the offensive line.
Either way, the reaction to the new Ohio State offensive coordinator has been split 50/50. It’s January, so the success or failure of the hire is still unknown. Only time will tell. And 2024 needs to be the year Ohio State wins because they’ve pushed all its chips in.