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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 11: Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech's offense opens holes wide enough for a ramblin' wreck to cruise through.

Not since Bobby Dodd had the Yellow Jackets won 20 games over two seasons. Not since 1990, when the Jackets took home both the A.C.C. and national championships, had this program won an outright conference title. Wasn’t Georgia Tech supposed to struggle adapting to Paul Johnson’s offense? Better yet, wasn’t this experiment – this gimmick of an offense – never supposed to get off the ground at all? (I make one bad pun at Tech’s expense each summer.) Looking back, Georgia Tech achieved enough in 2009 to rest on its laurels, but struggled just enough to keep itself motivated to get better in 2010 and beyond. That’s a good thing. Need more good news? Historically, Johnson-coached teams truly hit their stride in year three. However, some may raise the issue of all that lost talent, especially on offense. Or point to the new faces on the defensive coaching staff. Tech does have some issues to address, but that’s the negative result of winning an A.C.C. title: fans expect a repeat.

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Coastal

Location
Atlanta

Nickname
Yellow Jackets

Returning starters
14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 16

2009 record
(11-3, 7-1)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 11

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    South Carolina St.
  • Sept. 11
    at Kansas
  • Sept. 18
    at U.N.C.
  • Sept. 25
    at N.C. St.
  • Oct. 2
    at Wake Forest
  • Oct. 9
    Virginia
  • Oct. 16
    Middle Tenn. St.
  • Oct. 23
    at Clemson
  • Nov. 4
    at Virginia Tech
  • Nov. 13
    Miami (Fla.)
  • Nov. 20
    Duke
  • Nov. 27
    at Georgia

Last year’s prediction

I don’t believe the Yellow Jackets to be national championship contenders, mind you, but I’m confident that this is the second-best team in the A.C.C. behind only Virginia Tech, its Coastal division rival. My only concerns revolve around whether this team is ready to unseat the Hokies as the top team in the Coastal division. My gut feeling? Not yet, but it’s close. Over all, I would be surprised if Tech suffered through anything worse than a nine-win season, matching last fall’s win total, with one loss coming to Virginia Tech.

2009 recap

In a nutshell One thing I got wrong: Georgia Tech was the best team in the A.C.C., not the second-best. It proved this fact throughout the season, topping divisional rivals like North Carolina and Virginia Tech, beating Atlantic division champion Clemson twice and ending the year with only a single loss in conference play. Here’s a scary thought: Georgia Tech scored nearly 13 more points per game in 2009 than in 2008. That’s called progress. Not to say there is not room for improvement. Tech allowed 24.8 points per game, the program’s worst performance of the decade. Five wins came by five points or less, including a pair of wins over Clemson that could have very easily gone the other way. Yet when the dust settled, there was Georgia Tech, 11-win Georgia Tech, atop the conference.

High point The A.C.C. title. It took two victories over Clemson, each which featured huge gains from trick plays out of special teams formation. Fool Clemson once, shame on you; fool Clemson twice, shame on Dabo, etc. Of course, the Jackets would not have reached the conference championship game without a 28-23 win against Virginia Tech on Oct. 17; a loss would have given the Hokies the Coastal crown.

Low point Sandwiched around the A.C.C. championship were two disappointing results. The first was a six-point loss to hated Georgia in Atlanta. The Bulldogs entered the game at an underwhelming 6-5, but put up 339 yards of rushing offense in the win. An Orange Bowl matchup with Iowa ended in similar fashion: Tech was ineffective on offense in a 24-14 loss.

Tidbit I am unable to infer anything from the following statistic. In 2008, Georgia Tech rushed for more yards than its opponent in each of its four losses (Virginia Tech, Virginia, North Carolina and L.S.U.). The opposite was true in 2009: Georgia Tech was outgained on the ground by Miami (184 yards to 95 yards), Georgia (339 to 205) and Iowa (172 to 143).

Tidbit (excellence edition) No coach ever — ever, as in the history of college football — has won as many games as Paul Johnson, 127, over their first 13 seasons. His career record of 127-46 is aided greatly by his 62-10 mark over five seasons at Georgia Southern, but regardless: Johnson has the most wins over his first 13 years of any coach in college football history. That’s a long time, by the way. And a very impressive stat.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is loyal reader DivePlay, whose correct answer to a quiz in the Ohio preview earned him the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of his favorite team. His team? Georgia Tech. The name gave it away. Take it away, DivePlay:

Even though Tech lost its #1 rusher and receiver to the NFL, Paul Johnson’s offense will adjust and at worst turn in a similar performance as last year’s 34 point/game and 422 yard/game effort.  Tech’s success in 2010 will be determined by the improvement the defense shows after a lackluster 2009.  Johnson fired his defensive coordinator and scored a coup by landing Al Groh to install his 3-4 scheme.  The Jackets have a brutal road schedule in 2010, but if the defense can simply improve to average then they should have no problem reaching double digit wins again.

Former players in the N.F.L.

27 LB Keith Brooking (Dallas), S Morgan Burnett (Green Bay), S James Butler (St. Louis), RB Tashard Choice (Dallas), FB Mike Cox (Kansas City), RB Jonathan Dwyer (Pittsburgh), LS Andrew Economos (Tampa Bay), LB Keyaron Fox (Pittsburgh), OT Andrew Gardner (Miami), LB Gary Guyton (New England), DT Anthony Hargrove (New Orleans), TE Will Heller (Detroit), OG Cord Howard (Buffalo), WR Calvin Johnson (Detroit), LB Michael Johnson (Cincinnati), S Dawan Landry (Baltimore), TE Michael Matthews (Buffalo), DE Derrick Morgan (Tennessee), S Chris Reis (New Orleans), DT Darryl Richard (New England), LB Daryl Smith (Jacksonville), WR Demaryius Thomas (Denver), DT Vance Walker (Atlanta), LB Phillip Wheeler (Indianapolis), LB Gerris Wilkinson (New York Giants), CB Jahi Word-Daniels (Detroit), OG Mansfield Wrotto (Seattle).

Arbitrary top five list

Greatest engineering feats
1. The Pyramids.
2. Panama Canal.
3. The Great Wall of China.
4. Hoover Dam.
5. The Channel Tunnel.

Coaching

Paul Johnson (Western Carolina ’79), 20-7 after two seasons with Yellow Jackets. It’s hard to imagine his first years at Tech having gone any better: nine victories, a Top 25 finish and win over Georgia in 2008 preceded last season’s A.C.C. championship and B.C.S. bowl birth. Where are all those who said that Johnson would fall flat, and that the antiquated option offense wouldn’t match up with a speedy defense? What must be so frightening to the rest of the A.C.C. is that Georgia Tech has been this good so soon; most expected it to take at least one season for the Jackets to learn the intricacies of the option offense, and another to begin to break in players best suited for the system. Perhaps one should not have been surprised: Johnson has been extremely successful at both his previous stops, leading Georgia Southern to a 62-10 mark and two Division I-AA national championships from 1997-2001 and Navy to a 45-29 record from 2002-2007. His time at Navy was among the most successful in program history. He is one of five coaches in the academy’s history with at least five years’ experience with a winning percentage over .600, and his stretch of five consecutive seasons with at least eight wins was the first in the program’s history. Johnson also illustrated he can make a quick turnaround; he inherited a Navy team coming off a two-year stretch of 1-20 ball, and after finishing 2-10 in his initial season, went 43-19 the rest of his tenure. In 2003, Johnson led Navy to an 8-5 mark and a trip to the Houston Bowl, helping the Midshipmen become only the sixth team in N.C.A.A. history to go from a winless season to a bowl game in two years or less.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Oh, changes have been made. Dissatisfied with last year’s defensive performance, Paul Johnson didn’t just go with several new pieces on his coaching staff, he went with a wholesale change in philosophy. Gone is Dave Wommack, as well as two assistants. In comes Al Groh as coordinator and outside linebackers coach; he brings along the 3-4 defense. Groh’s hiring has already paid some dividends: Bill Belichick visited Tech’s fall practice. The Yellow Jackets also added Andy McCollum as defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator and Joe Speed as inside linebackers coach. How will the defense fare in 2010? Well, it can only be better. In the big picture, few defensive coordinators in the college game bring the same breadth of experience on both this level and in the N.F.L. ranks.

Players to watch

The name has changed, the game stays the same. Joshua Nesbitt — the quarterback formerly known as “Josh” — is back for a third season in the starting lineup, hoping to continue his development after both passing and rushing for 1,000 yards in 2009. Nesbitt earned first-team all-A.C.C. honors for his play, which featured far greater production as a passer. His completion percentage was again poor, but that’s not going to change. He did a far better job protecting the football, throwing the same number of interceptions as in 2008, five, while making 39 more attempts. Obviously, Nesbitt doesn’t hold the starting job because of his passing acumen, but for his ability to run Johnson’s spread attack. He was terrific on the ground, rushing for 1,037 yards and 18 touchdowns; the latter total led the team. I do have one worry about Tech’s quarterback position, however: depth is thin, and the Yellow Jackets cannot afford to lose Nesbitt to injury. Due to the hits he takes as a rusher, that’s always a concern.

If extrapolated to Jonathan Dwyer’s workload in 2009, senior Anthony Allen should rush for 2,280 yards in 2010, give or take a yard or two here and there. Well, that’s not going to happen. Yet it’s impossible not to be excited about the potential the former Louisville transfer has as Tech’s lead back, as Allen was moved from A-back to B-back to help offset Dwyer’s decision to forgo his final season of eligibility. He’ll be backed up at A-back by senior Lucas  Cox, sophomore Richard Watson and junior Preston Lyons, with the former pair battling for the second spot on the depth chart. Lyons missed spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery.

There’s equal depth at slot back, with Roddy Jones leading the pack. He rushed for 345 yards on 6.5 yards per carry a season ago. Fellow junior Embry Peebles will start the other slot back spot, with seasoned reserves like Marcus Wright and Orwin Smith providing ample depth. It might be difficult for a freshman — true or otherwise — to break into the mix, but Tech could also turn to B.J. Bostic, Robert Godhigh, Jamal Paige and Charles Perkins, if push came to shove. Lots of depth in the backfield.

Wide receiver is a concern, of course, with Demaryius Thomas no longer part of the equation. It will be a by-committee approach for the Yellow Jackets, as no one option is going to replace Thomas’s production single-handedly. Sophomore Stephen Hill has some Thomas-like big-play ability, as shown by his 22.8 yards per catch average a season ago. Well, that average did only stem from five receptions. Junior Tyler Melton and senior Kevin Cone are experienced, though neither strikes fear into opposing secondaries. Keep an eye on Hill and fellow sophomore Quentin Sims, but don’t expect similar production — at least in terms of big plays — from this receiver corps.

The shift to the 3-4 brings plenty of optimism, though optimism tinged with anxiety. It’s impossible not to be at least a little nervous: five lost starters, two a year early, to go along with the learning curve that accompanies such a change in philosophy. On the other hand, you have a talented secondary, a few players to watch at linebacker and Groh’s history of defensive consistency. So it’s a mixed bag. In my mind, there’s more to like than not.

The biggest worry is the defensive line. As I’ve mentioned far too many times to count this summer, the 3-4 depends heavily on the nose tackle. Who inherits this task for the Yellow Jackets? As of now, the job belongs to junior Logan Walls. No, senior Ben Anderson is the guy. Or is it sophomore T.J. Barnes? Each has a case to make for the starting role: Walls earned the majority of first-team snaps during the spring; Anderson is a returning starter, albeit at a different spot along the line; and Barnes projects as a very good player on the college level. Injuries and a lack of size are holding Anderson back, as at 272 pounds he’s dwarfed by both Walls and Barnes. Still, he’ll be an important figure up front, at worst a member of the three-man rotation over the nose.

Junior end Jason Peters had a wonderful spring, somewhat assuaging fears that Derrick Morgan would be too imposing a figure to replace. He’s no Morgan, of course, but if Peters can continue to develop he’ll hold down one end spot nicely. Two youngsters are jockeying for the starting role on the opposite end, with sophomore Izaan Cross holding a slight edge over redshirt freshman Emmanuel Dieke as Tech prepares to break camp. This pair brings very good size to the 3-4 end spot.

Helping Tech make the defensive transition is senior inside linebacker Brad Jefferson, last year’s team leader in tackles (95). It’s hard to imagine Steven Sylvester not joining him in the middle of Tech’s four-linebacker base set, though the junior must outplay redshirt freshman Brandon Watts to land the starting role. Sylvester made eight starts at outside linebacker in 2009. The 3-4 shift will help a few former linemen that looked too small to be every-down players: seniors Anthony Barnes and Anthony Egbuniwe. Formerly ends, this pair will put their pass rushing skills to full use off the edge. Look for a learning curve, however, as both learn — or relearn — how to play with their hands off the ground.

Even without Morgan Burnett, who left for the N.F.L. as a junior, the Tech secondary is loaded. There’s enough depth that Johnson can afford to redshirt a talent like safety Jamea Thomas, who earned meaningful time as a true freshman a season ago. Remember: Tech has numbers for the first time in the Johnson era, as his first two teams lacked the full allotment of scholarship players.

How will Tech replace Burnett? The first order of business was moving junior Jerrard Tarrant from cornerback to safety. Tarrant doubles as a superb return man: he brought back two kickoffs for scores last fall. As Tarrant moved to safety, senior Dominique Reese moves to cornerback. The pair essentially switch spots. Tarrant is the only non-senior among the four starters, as Mario Edwards returns at safety and Mario Butler at cornerback. Throw in junior Rashaad Reid, a very good third cornerback, and Tech has five returning contributors who have combined for 75 career starts. The secondary is not a worry, obviously.

Position battles to watch

Offensive line Two full-time starters return from last year’s group. A third potential starter, would-be junior Joseph Gilbert, transferred in February under very strange circumstances: having already received his undergraduate degree, Gilbert needed to gain acceptance into one of Tech’s graduate programs — accounting was his choice, I believe — to continue his career with the Yellow Jackets. He was unable to do, forcing him to continue his career elsewhere. A third returning linemen, sophomore Phil Smith, made four starts a year ago. The line will be built around returning starters Sean Bedford and Austin Barrick, both seniors. Bedford earned first-team all-A.C.C. accolades a season ago. While Barrick holds down the right tackle spot, blind side tackle will come down to Smith and junior Nick Claytor, an former starter hopefully fully recovered from the injury that hampered his 2009 season. We’ll see another promotion at right guard: sophomore Omoregie Uzzi moves up into the starting lineup. To me, left guard is the biggest question mark. Sophomore Nick McRae will be the guy, but he’s the least experienced performer among Tech’s starting five. A larger concern, perhaps, is depth. Not that Tech doesn’t have any, but much will depend on the development of four freshmen coming off redshirt seasons. If this quartet can step up, the offensive line will go eight or nine players deep. As one would expect, the line will be better in 2011.

Game(s) to watch

The rivalry with Georgia has been kicked up a notch since Johnson’s arrival in 2008. The schedule is relatively easy – at least easier – through mid-October, but the three-game stretch from Oct. 23 – Nov. 13 will really test the Yellow Jackets.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There’s really only one reason why I have Georgia Tech in this spot. Well, there are a number of reasons, but one reigns supreme above all others: Paul Johnson. It’s time to stop the second-guessing, time to acknowledge the fact that Georgia Tech isn’t going anywhere. This offense works. When run effectively, with the right personnel, it’s unstoppable. This was right in the 1970s, right again in the 1980-90s, and right again as we enter the second decade of the 2000s. Perhaps one opponent will get the better of the Yellow Jackets — such as Miami and Iowa did a year ago. It won’t happen often, however, and certainly not multiple times over the course of a single season. So stop the doubting. Get on board. You should have no reservations about this team, as such misgivings about an individual Georgia Tech teams indicates a lack of faith in Paul Johnson. If nothing else, as stated, believe in Paul Johnson. The defense will remain a work in progress, particularly given the move to the 3-4. The offense must replace a few stars, to be sure. And the schedule is unforgiving. No, I’m not saying the Yellow Jackets are going to play for a national title; I’m not even saying the Yellow Jackets will take the A.C.C. — again, I’m going with Virginia Tech. What I am saying is this: predicting a decline based on mistrust of this “gimmick” offense is as foolish as it gets. If anything, it will be the defense that stands as Tech’s Achilles heel. It won’t be great, but I think this Al Groh-led group will be good enough to help the Yellow Jackets to a second consecutive season with double-digit wins.

Dream season The Yellow Jackets continue to reach new heights. A second consecutive conference championship and B.C.S. birth earns Johnson a hefty contract extension. Oh, and Tech beats Georgia. By 28 points. In Athens.

Nightmare season Johnson struggles installing new playmakers into his offense, and the Jackets slip to 7-5, 4-4 in conference play.

In case you were wondering

Where do Georgia Tech fans congregate? For independent message boards, check out BBuzzOff.com (“A No Holds Barred Discussion of Georgia Tech Sports”) and Sting Talk. Recruiting coverage can be found at GoJackets.com and Jackets Online. For additional information, visit From The Rumble Seat, Barrel of Rum and the Web site of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Tidbit (misconceptions edition) It’s not easy to grasp Paul Johnson’s spread offense, so I wholeheartedly suggest you check out two options for your reading pleasure. The first is The Birddog, a site I’ve linked to in the past. The hard-working proprietor, Mike, does a terrific job breaking down the intricacies and fancies of the option attack. I also suggest checking out this post from BBuzzOff.com, the site listed above. It comes with color pictures, which I know helps.

Up Next

Who is No. 10? Our next university is the only Public Ivy — according to the 2001 rankings — located below the Mason-Dixon line remaining on the Countdown.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Perrin says:

    Florida is next!

  2. Brandon says:

    florida

  3. DivePlay says:

    Great preview Paul. I honestly don’t know how I’d make it through the dog days of summer without these previews.

    One very small correction: Coach Johnson has said Brandon Watts will probably start at ILB next to Jefferson and they will try Sylvester at OLB.

    Paul: Nice update. It makes sense that Sylvester would stay on the outside. Though Tech has two good rush options at OLB as well.

  4. Cromulent says:

    I was hoping to read more detail on reports of Johnson modifying his flexbone(that’ what I call it and I’m sticking to it) a bit, including possibly some pistol stuff.

  5. Jim Dotter says:

    “aided greatly by his 62-10 mark over five seasons at Georgia Southern”

    This is offset by his 2002 2-win mark while rebuilding the mighty Navy team.

    Wow that hurt typing that statement.

  6. GTGreg says:

    Betcha #10 is UNC

  7. GTGreg says:

    Aw crap… disregard. I guess UF might make the most sense.

  8. Hash Slinger says:

    No pistol stuff this off-season but a healthy dose of shotgun portends a heavy dose of flexed out A-backs into what’s basically a run-n-shoot formation. We’ll also employ the stack formation this year & a jumbo package with an unbalanced line. We’ve worked on all of this either in the spring or fall.

    Paul: Man, that’s a beautiful comment. Have to be excited about what this offense can do in year three.

  9. Joe says:

    Paul, I agree. Whether or not GT finds a suitable nose tackle will either make or break the 3-4 in year one. Going forward I don’t doubt Groh will be able to find his man (or men), but for VT’s sake I hope it takes some time.

    @Cromulent – Every time his offense is referred to something other than the spread option CPJ immediately corrects the offender.

  10. GTFan says:

    This is the best pre-season evaluation of Tech I’ve seen so far. Paul the main thing you get about Tech that everyone else misses is that Paul Johnson is the coach. Everyone else is far too myopic in their analysis, focusing too much on the NFL departures. But they are missing the woods for the trees, the woods being the simple fact that Paul Johnson is the coach. All the guy does is win big whereever he’s been, and he’s going to start hitting his stride at Tech in year 3.

    He exceeded expectations in both of his first 2 years. I think he does it again in year 3 with a real chance at a national title run.

  11. TheTaxJacket says:

    ****Nesbitt for Heismen****

    ((( 45-42 )))

  12. Kyle says:

    I like how the GT fan above is posting the score of the only game GT won over UGA this decade, and it wasn’t even last year.

  13. [...] Five and Five: No. 11, Georgia Tech By PAUL MYERBERG Paul Myerberg is getting you ready for the upcoming college football season over at Pre-Snap Read. The Quad will also feature a daily look at each of Paul’s top 50 teams in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 11, is Georgia Tech. You can find a larger Georgia Tech preview here. [...]

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