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Supposedly, Year Three’s the Best

Sit back, relax and enjoy: Johnson-led teams hit it big in year three.

Georgia Tech enters the 2010 season with a bullseye on its back, the logical result of last fall’s A.C.C. title and B.C.S. bowl berth. Additional pressure will come from the loss of several key starters on either side of the ball: Jonathan Dwyer, Derrick Morgan, Morgan Burnett, and so on. The rest of the A.C.C. surely recalls what the Yellow Jackets have accomplished over Paul Johnson’s first two years in charge of the program: 20 wins, a conference title, consistent improvement in his spread option offense. What should worry the rest of the A.C.C. is this: at each of his two previous stops, Johnson-led teams saved their best for year three.

Johnson’s head coaching career began in 1997, when he left a two-year stint as Navy’s offensive coordinator to take the top position at Georgia Southern, a proud F.C.S. program suffering a downturn. The Eagles had slipped to 4-7 in 1996, the year prior to Johnson’s arrival; that was the school’s lowest output since the reformation of its football program n 1982.

His impact was immediate: from 4-7 in 1996 to a 10-3, the second-highest total for a first-year coach in Georgia Southern history. As with the Yellow Jackets, there was no learning curve, no period of readjustment for the offense. The spread offense — a philosophy honed over a decade spent at both Hawaii and Navy — went in on day one. And the results, when held against Georgia Southern’s recent past, were noteworthy: 423 points scored, at that point the sixth-most in school history and a 198-point improvement over 1996.

As one would expect, the Eagles took another significant step forward in 1998. That fall, in Georgia Southern’s 14-1 finish, the Eagles scored a then-school record 654 points — a 241-point improvement, albeit in two more games, over 1997. Then came 1999: fewer wins, perhaps, yet continued progression on the offensive side of the ball. That fall saw Georgia Southern win only 13 games — only 13 — yet again shatter the school record for scoring. The Eagles scored 747 points — just shy of 50 points per game. Most importantly, Georgia Southern won the F.C.S. — then Division I-AA, of course — national championship, the first of two straight.

Johnson returned to Navy in 2002, replacing the man — Charlie Weatherbie — that hired him to run the offense in 1995. Johnson was a very logical choice for the Mids: the best year of the Weatherbie era, after all, came when Johnson was calling the shots offensively. Initial results were disappointing, as Navy finished 2-10 in Johnson’s debut season.

That was still a two-win improvement over Navy’s winless 2001 campaign; the Mids also scored roughly a touchdown more per game than in 2000, though the defense was, to that point, the worst in school history. The year was defined by a few narrow losses, such as those single-digit setbacks to Northwestern, Rice, Notre Dame and Wake Forest. Most of all, however, Johnson’s debut campaign was defined by a 58-12 win over Army in the season finale, a win that propelled Navy into the off-season on a very high note.

An eight-win 2003 followed, a year that culminated in only Navy’s second bowl trip since 1982. Year three? Try 10-2, Navy’s first double-digit-win season of the modern era. The season included three wins over B.C.S. conference opposition: Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Rutgers. So not quite the murderer’s row; nevertheless, three wins over B.C.S. conference opposition only three years removed from a winless season. The regular season ended with Navy’s second consecutive Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.

So here’s where the doubters lost me: the offense rolled at Georgia Southern, it rolled at Navy, it’s rolling at Georgia Tech. There should be no room for doubt, in my opinion. History is on Tech’s side in this argument; history has shown that the offense works. History has shown that how often an opponent sees it — Clemson saw it twice in three months — has little bearing on its success on defense. What else has history shown? That year three is when Johnson-coached teams take the next step.

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  1. Ash says:

    Nice breakdown of something I’ve been thinking about this offseason. I’ve only recently found your work, and I have to say you write the most informed and informative breakdowns of teams and coaches of any journalist I know. The quality and quantity of your output is really amazing, especially compared to the hundreds of sports journalists that don’t seem to do much more than update their blogs a few times a day.

  2. ctoption says:

    Paul Johnson, in my opinion, is one of the finest tacticians in the game today. You are the only one who gives PJ and Gt the love they deserve.

  3. Jim Dotter says:

    The only thing to stop the year three streak, is if Al Groh can’t install the “spread option” defense quickly enough.

  4. [...] you take trends seriously (and I tend to), Paul Myerberg offers a decent rebuttal to the argument that Georgia Tech is likely to decline in 2010 due to the player losses it [...]

  5. Kyle says:

    Georgia Tech will be fine with Paul Johnson, but I don’t think we should suddenly be dreaming up national titles for them because his teams continue to improve in year 3. If Tech gets dominated up front, they will probably lose, just like any other team. That’s the common denominator in most of their big losses. It’s also imperative for Tech’s future success that they get better on defense.

  6. George says:

    Good points, but one thing stands out at GT that was not a factor at the other places: GT lost two first round draft choices this year, and I don’t think that a team gets better by losing that kind of talent. Also, the “cut/chop” blocking that his teams use has had the spotlight turned on the practice and one can expect more penalties that result in fewer yards for the offense. When the officials had a show at the ACC pre-season media conclave, they talked about chop blocking, and they showed a GT player using a chop block — that wasn’t called at the time, but that now will be, according to the official in charge of the demonstration. My bet is that they are not as good in 2010 as they were in 2009.

  7. GTGreg says:

    To George:

    Cut blocking is not the same as Chop blocking. Cut blocking is simply blocking very low with the intention of getting that player’s assignment on the ground. Chop blocking is when one player engages an assignment up high while another player engages that assignment down low, often with injurious consequences. As Paul Johnson continues to bring in his type of linemen, I would expect the players’ technique to develop and penalties to decrease. Don’t forget, Paul Johnson saw that presentation at the ACC preseason kickoff as well.

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