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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. 43: Georgia Tech

Only Ponzi schemes and the N.C.A.A. can turn $312 into a $100,000 loss. That sentence does come with an asterisk, however: Georgia Tech saw $312 worth of clothing and a secondary violation turn into a $100,000 fine, a vacated A.C.C. title and four years of probation, but the N.C.A.A. took greater umbrage with how the program flouted one of the governing body’s cardinal rules – it failed to “protect the integrity” of the N.C.A.A. investigation. How did Georgia Tech do that? According to the N.C.A.A., the university “prepped” a student-athlete on the nuts-and-bolts of the ongoing investigation. Yawn. Is that what draws probation and vacated wins these days? If so, I shudder as to the N.C.A.A. penalties should it be unearthed that a university was, say, paying players to sign on the dotted line. If a $312 misstep nets a $100,000 fine and probation, would a $180,000 transgression lead to a $57,692,308 fine and the end of college football as we know it?

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Coastal

Location
Atlanta

Nickname
Yellow Jackets

Returning starters
11 (6 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 11

2010 record
(6-7, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 61

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Western Carolina
  • Sept. 10
    at M.T.S.U.
  • Sept. 17
    Kansas
  • Sept. 24
    North Carolina
  • Oct. 1
    at N.C. St.
  • Oct. 8
    Maryland
  • Oct. 15
    at Virginia
  • Oct. 22
    at Miami (Fla.)
  • Oct. 29
    Clemson
  • Nov. 10
    Virginia Tech
  • Nov. 17
    at Duke
  • Nov. 26
    Georgia

Last year’s prediction

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. So stop the doubting. Get on board. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell A struggle. It wasn’t supposed to be this way: I remarked in August that Paul Johnson-coached teams typically take off in his third season in charge; that didn’t help for the Yellow Jackets in 2010. So what happened? Let’s start on defense. Johnson’s decision to hire Al Groh, who in turn implemented the 3-4 base look, might yield long-term results — the results in 2010, however, were largely similar to the defense we saw the year before. In fact, the Yellow Jackets finished lower on a national level in total defense — from 53rd in the F.B.S to 66th — while allowing nearly two additional points per game. Not a huge decline, not a crippling decline, though difficult to overcome if the offense takes a step back. Surprisingly — shockingly, even — the offense was far less potent in Johnson’s third season; again, this was unexpected. Was it injuries? At least in part: Tech went 1-3 down the stretch without quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, who was replaced by sophomore Tevin Washington. The running game continued to roll, finishing first nationally, but the potency was lacking. While it seems strange to place emphasis on the passing game, Georgia Tech’s lack of a big-play threat at receiver was an issue throughout the fall. Is the fact that the Yellow Jackets were less effective on offense because of a diminished passing attack stand as the definition of irony? I think I’m trying too hard. On a whole, however, Georgia Tech’s six-win finish stood as one of the larger disappointments of the 2010 F.B.S. season.

High point A 30-24 road win over North Carolina on Sept. 18. For a week, the Yellow Jackets looked like the team we all expected. Tech would be 5-2 on Oct. 16, but things quickly unraveled.

Low point Three straight A.C.C. losses from Oct. 23 – Nov. 13. The offense went missing: 13 points at Clemson, 21 at Virginia Tech and, most embarrassingly, only 10 in a home loss to Miami. Two weeks later, the Yellow Jackets dropped their second straight affair to rival Georgia. There’s also a humiliating loss at Kansas, which had lost the week before, 6-3, to South Dakota State.

Tidbit Last fall’s 6-7 finish marked Tech’s first losing season in 14 years. While it almost felt like every year from 2002-7 was a losing season, Chan Gailey did in fact win at least seven games each season, including nine in 2006. Even during last year’s stumble, the Jackets kept one meaningful streak alive: the program has finished at least .500 in A.C.C. play for 16 straight seasons, the longest streak in the conference.

Tidbit (streak-snapper edition) The Yellow Jackets lost to seven teams in 2010: Kansas, N.C. State, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Miami, Georgia and Air Force. Tech held at least a one-game winning streak against five of those teams. Tech was 1-0 all-time against Kansas, having topped the Jayhawks in the 1948 Orange Bowl; had beaten N.C. State in their last meeting in 2006; had topped Clemson in the 2009 A.C.C. title game; beaten Virginia Tech in Atlanta in 2009; and won three straight over Air Force, all in the late-1970s. Georgia and Miami had topped the Jackets in 2009. After dropping the 2008 game, the Bulldogs have won two straight in the in-state rivalry defined by clean, old-fashioned hate.

Tidbit (rivalry edition) We know that Georgia has dominated the series since the late-1950s. We know this, and the numbers prove our case: Tech has won only 15 games over the Bulldogs since 1957. If this were a Georgia preview, I’d say that the Bulldogs have won 39 games since 1957, but I digress. One thing Georgia has been unable to do is get past the seven-win mark: the Bulldogs have won seven straight twice, from 1991-97 and 2001-7, but Tech has snapped long losing droughts in 1998 and 2008. As of today, the Yellow Jackets own the longest winning streak in the rivalry, eight straight from 1949-56 under the great, great Bobby Dodd.

Former players in the N.F.L.

26 RB Anthony Allen (Baltimore), 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 (Cincinnati), LB Gary Guyton (New England), DT Anthony Hargrove (New Orleans), TE Will Heller (Detroit), OG Cordero Howard (Buffalo), LB Michael Johnson (Cincinnati), WR Calvin Johnson (Detroit), S Dawan Landry (Baltimore), 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 Philip Wheeler (Indianapolis), LB Gerris Wilkinson (New York Giants), OG Mansfield Wrotto (Buffalo).

Arbitrary top five list

Second overall N.F.L. Draft picks since 1990
1. QB Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia.
2. WR Calvin Johnson, Detroit.
3. DE Julius Peppers, Carolina.
4. OT Tony Boselli, Jacksonville.
5. DT Ndamukong Suh, Detroit.

Coaching

Paul Johnson (Western Carolina ’79), 26-14 after three seasons with Yellow Jackets. It’s hard to imagine his first two years at Tech having gone any better: 20 victories, national rankings, a win over Georgia, an A.C.C. championship and a  B.C.S. bowl birth. What must have been so frightening to the rest of the A.C.C. is that Georgia Tech was that 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. Where were all those who said that Johnson would fall flat, and that the antiquated option offense wouldn’t match up with a speedy defense? Well, those naysayers had their day last fall, as while Tech continued to lead the country in rushing the offense as a whole was far less explosive. In sliding to six wins, Johnson placed himself under some slight pressure to return the Yellow Jackets to the A.C.C. mix in 2011. Count me among those who think he’ll get it don: Johnson was extremely successful at both his previous stops, leading Georgia Southern to a 62-10 mark and two F.C.S. 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. Now that he’s faced some adversity in Atlanta, Johnson needs to show the sort of fortitude that led him to rebuild moribund Navy and, at least from 2008-9, lead the Yellow Jackets to the top of the conference.

Players to watch

The one silver lining stemming from Joshua Nesbitt’s injury: it gave Tevin Washington valuable starting experience, time that will allow him to forego — perhaps — the learning curve accompanying your typical first-year starting quarterback. Perhaps. The Yellow Jackets went 1-4 without Nesbitt, including the game in which he suffered his season-ending arm injury, so it’s not as if Washington enters the full-time role with overwhelming public support. But he did outplay redshirt freshman Synjyn Days during the spring, and unless true freshman Vad Lee lights the world afire in August, this job belongs to Washington.

While he did lose three of four as the starter, it’s not as if Washington didn’t show flashes of ability. No, he’s not a great passer; he passes don’t look good, for starters, and they often don’t land at the intended destination. He completed 25 of 61 passes for 417 yards last fall, tossing two touchdowns against three interceptions, so this part of Washington’s game clearly needs work. But he looks fine as a runner: 514 yards and 4 scores, faring roughly the same statistically in a smaller sample size as did Nesbitt. Listen: Washington’s the guy come September. Come October? Maybe it’s Days. November? Maybe Lee, though I do think the Jackets should redshirt the freshman.

For the second straight year, Tech must replace a 1,000-yard back. For the second straight year, there’s really no reason for concern. Productive backs grow on trees in this offense, and the only question is which runner Johnson will choose to take over in this offense. There’s a wealth of riches at A-back, where senior Roddy Jones (353 yards, 6.8 yards per carry) and junior Orwin Smith (516 yards, 9.7 yards per carry) will start, with senior Embry Peeples (287 yards) and sophomore B.J. Bostic (127 yards, 9.8 yards per carry) chipping in when given the opportunity. Look for a heavy rotation at A-back, as Tech is deep in numbers, talent and experience. Former Colgate transfer Preston Lyons will get first crack at B-back, the marquee position in the backfield. Lyons will share time with — and keep the seat warm for — redshirt freshman Charles Perkins, the future at B-back.

The outlook isn’t good at receiver. Yeah, it could be worse, seeing that Tech ranked 118th nationally in attempts last fall, but take note: this offense was off the charts with Demaryius Thomas making plays at receiver, rather pedestrian with less-explosive options split out wide. So Tech needs to get more out of the position. This is the case with junior Stephen Hill (15 receptions for 291 yards), the team’s leading receiver. Can Hill have a Thomas-like impact? Don’t bet on it. But he can make plays, and will be Washington’s favorite target in the passing game. Tyler Melton joins Hill in the starting lineup. Will former Alabama transfer Chris Jackson, dismissed from the team last fall, be eligible by September? If so, look for him to have a role at receiver.

The Yellow Jackets suffered two sizable losses up front: all-A.C.C. center Sean Bedford and tackle Nick Claytor, the latter an early entrant into the N.F.L. Draft. So it’s a somewhat similar story to a year ago, when the Yellow Jackets brought back a few experienced hands but had to retool at several spots. It’s a little better than in 2010, to be honest. Three starters return, led by junior right guard Omoregie Uzzi, a second-team all-A.C.C. pick a year ago. Uzzi and junior left tackle Phil Smith have 25 of the line’s combined 37 career starts. Sophomore left guard Phil Jackson made nine starts in 2010 and sophomore Jay Finch three; Tech moves Finch inside to center from guard in an effort to replace Bedford. The biggest question mark in the starting lineup? That’s right tackle Tyler Kidney, a former walk-on who weighs in at about 265 pounds, which isn’t big. Depth as a whole is also in doubt, though that could be aided by several freshmen coming off redshirt seasons.

Year two in Al Groh’s 3-4 system will find this defense more comfortable, more confident and, hopefully, more productive. Unfortunately, year two also finds the Yellow Jackets rebuilding the entire secondary, a situation I’ll touch on below. Where else does 2011 find Georgia Tech? More than anything — and this goes for the team as a whole — the coming season finds Tech searching for consistency, as even if the defense doesn’t do a better job getting to the quarterback or forcing turnovers it’s vital that this group not suffer the sort of lapses that plagued the defense throughout last season.

All three starters are back up front. Two are seniors, end Jason Peters (52 tackles, 5 for loss) and tackle LoganWalls (23 tackles), with this pair combining for 40 career starts heading into the fall. Joining them in the starting lineup is junior Izaan Cross (41 tackles, 6.5 for loss), a prototypical 3-4 end with a very high ceiling. The Jackets like the starting trio, and rightfully so, but what could push this line to even greater heights is the improved depth.

Groh has said that he wants to rotate more bodies in and out of the lineup up front, and he will be able to do so in 2011. This is due to a crop of young talent, like redshirt freshman Anthony Williams and sophomores Emmanuel Dieke, Euclid Cummings and Christopher Crenshaw. Will all four play? I’d think so, though one or two more than others. But the depth is very promising at end. Tech will also rely on big — very, very big — junior T.J. Barnes to spell Walls inside on occasion. The line should be pretty good.

Likewise at linebacker. This was a group that was really tested by last season’s philosophical changes: depth was tested most of all, but a few starters and reserves encountered a tough learning curve when thrown into new roles. One player who actually benefited immensely from the move was junior Julian Burnett (team-best 89 tackles), whose lack of perfect size belies his tremendous nose for the football. Though not a starter until October, Burnett is now entrenched as a team leader at inside linebacker. The Jackets need to find a second guy on the inside to replace Brad Jefferson; that job currently belongs to sophomore Daniel Drummond, but Tech could also turn to senior Albert Rocker or redshirt freshman Quayshawn Nealy. While Nealy stands behind Burnett on the depth chart, he had a strong enough spring to expect him to be a factor inside.

I think senior Steven Sylvester will be the breakout star on the defense. Georgia Tech desperately needs to beef up a pass rush that ranked 96th nationally in sacks in 2010. My opinion: turn Sylvester (team-leading 10.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks) lose off the edge, as he showed last fall an ability to make plays in the backfield. Let me backtrack a bit: if Sylvester won’t be the breakout star, it’ll be sophomore Jeremiah Attaochu (23 tackles, 3 sacks). He impressed in limited duty as a freshman. If we know nothing else about Al Groh it’s that he knows linebackers, which gives me some confidence that this linebacker corps will be pretty good. I think the entire front seven will be pretty good, in fact.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary All four full-time starters must be replaced off last year’s group: cornerbacks Dominique Reese and Mario Butler and safeties Jarrard Tarrant and Mario Edwards. Tarrant, with nine starts, was the only member of the quartet not to start all 13 games in 2010; Butler and Reese combined to make 71 career starts at cornerback. Time to rebuild. This is a pretty significant task for defensive backs coach Charles Kelly, as while the defense as a whole had a tough go of it last fall the secondary did play up to expectations, by and large. With experience at a premium, it’s not surprising to see Isaiah Johnson (46 tackles, 1 interception) and Rashaad Reid hold starting spots at safety. Reid, a senior, brings 15 career starts to the table; Johnson, a sophomore, started three games in Tarrant’s stead a season ago. Another pair of sophomores, Fred Holton and Lance Richardson, make up the second line at safety. In short, I don’t think safety is the real issue — particularly if Johnson begins to crack into his sizable potential. Instead, the biggest worries are at cornerback. This is only logical, given the lost experience. It’s also not a stretch to say that junior Rod Sweeting holds the key to the whole secondary: the team’s third cornerback in 2010, Sweeting must become Tech’s stopper at cornerback. Does Sweeting have that sort of potential? It’s really hard to say, seeing that he hasn’t really been asked to line up against the opposition’s best on a down-by-down basis. He needs to fill this role, that’s for sure. Joining Sweeting at cornerback is sophomore Louis Young, with veteran Michael Peterson, a senior, providing some depth. This is a very young, unproven secondary. You’d really expect nothing less after losing such experience.

Game(s) to watch

The road to a Coastal division title continues to go through Virginia Tech, a team the Yellow Jackets beat the last time the two met in Atlanta. In addition to the Hokies, key A.C.C. games exist against North Carolina, Miami, Clemson… every conference game is key, to be honest. And there’s also Georgia: don’t ever forget about Georgia.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I’d say that this coming season will prove whether this coaching staff has the goods, but that’s only partly true. We know Paul Johnson has the goods; I’ve been saying it for years now, but even after last year’s slide I’d include Johnson among the top tier of coaches in the country. Al Groh needs to prove himself, however, and this 3-4 defense needs to prove itself. I’m not overly concerned about the offense, though Washington needs to pull ahead of all comers and take control under center; Hill, Melton or another receiver must provide more big plays; and the offensive line needs to locate depth. But the offense will deliver, leaving the defense as the biggest question mark heading into the fall. Can a strong front seven offset some worries in the secondary? That’s the hope. The line and linebackers can help matters by putting more pressure on the quarterback; that task may fall to Attaochu and Sylvester, though Cross, Peters and the young ends will also be asked to get more pressure in the backfield. Now, let’s be perfectly honest: this team really isn’t all that talented. Yeah, there’s talent in spots — in some key spots — but from top to bottom, this isn’t a team, on paper, that looks built for A.C.C. title contention. And perhaps it’s not. But I have faith in Johnson and his ability to win when counted out, as he’s illustrated countless times at Navy and over his first two years with the Yellow Jackets. Is this is a great team? Nope. But it’s a good team, one that is now completely comfortable in this offensive system, and that will help. Whether the defense is completely comfortable in the 3-4 should decide this team’s level of success. For now, seven wins is a very safe bet, and eight or more is very much in play.

Dream season It’s like 2008 all over again: counted out, overlooked and dismissed, Georgia Tech shocks the A.C.C. by finishing 10-2, 6-2 in conference play. That would include a 42-10 win over Georgia, of course.

Nightmare season The slide continues. Tech goes from 6-7 to 4-8, losing six games in conference and dropping another game to the Bulldogs.

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 SeatBarrel of Rum and the Web site of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Word Count

Through 78 teams 232,946.

Up Next

Who is No. 42? The city housing tomorrow’s university has a entry in a local sports league which contains teams named after Warthogs, Sidewinders and Magpies.

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Comments

  1. UVA Wildcat says:

    I suppose we’re taking about the Arizona rugby union. That would make #42 Arizona State (since UA has already been profiled)?

  2. Michael says:

    great clue! so good to see some love for ruggers.

  3. Eksynyt says:

    Wow, is ASU really going to be this low? I really think they will be pretty good.

  4. anu says:

    Which team has the shortest travel distance (miles) road game in the FBS? It looks like GT, which only goes as far as Miami in 2011.

    Random, but interesting (maybe).

    Paul: That’s a great thought. Hadn’t even crossed my mind. Don’t have the time to go back and check the rest of the teams right now, but that’s something I’ll try to look at once the season kicks off.

  5. Chadnudj says:

    Hmmm. Those are all missiles/aircrafts, right?

    Could it be….Air Force?

  6. BobJ says:

    anu- UCLA has to go only about ten miles to play USC.

  7. Papa John says:

    With ASU, the new Pac-12 has 8 of its members ranked in the bottom two-thirds of your list. Not a great vote of confidence for a BCS conference.

    Also, you have ASU third in the Pac-12 South behind USC and Utah. That would be something if Utah plays in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game.

  8. Guy named Chief says:

    Rice to U of Houston 8 miles.

  9. John in BHM says:

    For the lowest total travel, I’ll nominate North Carolina with roughly 995 total miles. Their longest trip is 380 miles to Atlanta.

    There may be someone with eight home games that can have less total travel, but averaging under 200 miles per trip is pretty low.

    Now if Georgia Tech can get into the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic, that will be hard to beat for a short trip; it is about a mile and a half from campus.

  10. Pixel13 says:

    Shortest road trip? Nothing beats the Seattle Mariners series this year vs the Marlins. Marlins were the home team at Safeco Field due to their stadium being prebooked for a U2 concert.
    (the first and so far only time the pitchers have batted in regular season in AL park since the DH)

    On the Pac-12 championship game–Utah has a fair shot at it, since U$C is ineligible. And I don’t think ASU is gonna play to their clippings–Erickson hasn’t been getting it done in Tempe.

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