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The Countdown

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

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Georgia Tech (8-5, 5-3)

Remember when the forward pass came to Georgia Tech? Now, it didn’t last long: four games, give or take. But the passing game’s arrival lent another, supremely dangerous dimension to Paul Johnson’s already potent running attack, and for the season’s first month and change, the Yellow Jackets had as good an offense – as productive, explosive and frightening – as could be found in college football. But then it was gone, as the Jackets returned to recent tradition once the calendar turned towards A.C.C. play. In a perfect world, perhaps, Johnson could keep the forward pass as a permanent part of his offensive philosophy from September through December.

Or from September through January, should Johnson and Tech return to B.C.S. play. It wasn’t that long ago that the Jackets were taking on Iowa in the Orange Bowl: in 2009, Johnson’s second season with the program, Tech beat Clemson – the second time it did so that fall – to earn that marquee date with the Hawkeyes.

What that season proved is that the Jackets are significantly more potent offensively when balancing one of the nation’s best running attacks with a dangerous passing game. An untraditional passing game, of course, and one not seen elsewhere; perhaps at Army, Navy and Air Force, but nowhere else.

It’s a big-play, big-hitting passing game. In 2009, Tech averaged more than 10 yards per pass attempt in seven games, winning six. The lone outlier was a 30-24 loss to Georgia, when the Jackets gained 135 passing yards on 13 attempts. In wins, Tech averaged a season-high 19.4 yards per pass against Duke; 19.0 yards per attempt against Florida State, when it came out on the good end of a 49-44 decision; and 14.8 yards per pass against Vanderbilt.

Tech went 5-0 when held against a similar standard last fall: five wins, no losses, when averaging at least 10 yards per pass attempt. The difference between last fall and 2009, however, is that the Jackets tasted success through the air against only the weak links on the schedule. In 2009, as noted above, the Jackets were able to throw the ball against good and bad teams alike.

Why the offense was so successful through the air in 2009 can be tied, in no small degree, to the presence of Demaryius Thomas at wide receiver. The passing game isn’t fine-tuned like a West Coast or spread system predicated on finesse and timing, but is rather a fake-option-step-back-and-fling-it passing game, and having a Thomas – one of the best in recent memory at going up and getting the ball – allowed Tech to hit on countless big plays down the sidelines.

Thomas left following that 2009 season, one year ahead of schedule, and his mantle fell to Stephen Hill. After being a non-entity in 2010, Hill had a strong season last fall as a junior: 28 receptions for 820 yards and 5 scores, all totals good for best on the team. Unfortunately, like Thomas before him, Hill opted to forego his final season of eligibility.

What kind of difference would Thomas have had on Tech’s offense in 2010? He wouldn’t have kept Josh Nesbitt healthy; the then-senior, missed the final four games of the season. But when healthy, Nesbitt was tasting far less success in the passing game without a receiver like Thomas to make plays deep down the field. Looking ahead to 2012, the Jackets, now with Tevin Washington under center, need to find a new target to replace Hill.

Tech simply needs that added dimension on offense to be a realistic A.C.C. contender. Since Johnson’s arrival in 2008, the program is 19-3 when averaging at least nine yards per pass attempt. Conversely, the Jackets are 14-16 when averaging less than nine yards per pass attempt. Not that the team hasn’t won big games on the back of the running attack alone: Georgia and Miami (Fla.) in 2008, both Clemson wins in 2009 and Clemson last fall, for example.

But the passing game makes dangerous – Tech’s normal offense – into deadly. When projecting the Jackets against the rest of the A.C.C. heading into the fall, whether this team can battle Virginia Tech for Coastal division supremacy hinges on one major factor, whether the passing game can be successful deep – and behind that, whether Johnson can find a receiver to step into Hill’s shoes.

Season grade: B+ Through the first half of the season, the talk of the A.C.C. might have been Georgia Tech, not Clemson. The Tigers won the war, even if the battle, an Oct. 29 date in Atlanta, again went the Jackets’ way. Tech crumbled over the heart of A.C.C. play, laying an egg against Virginia, again failing to do anything against the Hurricanes and, in a prime time affair in early November, officially losing the Coastal division to the Hokies. This was a better team than the six-win version from the year before, obviously, but there were several frustrating periods of inconsistency – that seemed to carry over from 2010, even if these inconsistent spasms didn’t kick in until October and November. The disappointing conclusion to conference play could have been salvaged with a win over Georgia to end the regular season and a bowl win, but alas: Tech dropped both games.

High point The best victory was the 31-17 win over Clemson in late October. There was no better stretch, however, than the 6-0 start, which included three straight wins to open A.C.C. action. The 3-0 start merely in conference play was the program’s best under Johnson.

Low point Another loss to Georgia, the Jackets’ third straight after topping the Bulldogs, 45-42, in 2008. And despite holding a 24-10 lead more than midway through the fourth quarter, the Jackets lost in overtime to Utah, 30-27, in the Sun Bowl.

Offensive M.V.P. Tevin Washington played a larger role in the running game than Nesbitt ever did – or Tech’s running backs played a smaller role than they ever did when Nesbitt was running the offense. Washington led the Jackets with 242 carries; David Sims, a converted quarterback, finished second on the team with 135 carries. Washington also paced the team in rushing yards, with 986, and touchdowns, with 14, while throwing the ball – for a time, at least – as well as Tech ever has under Johnson’s direction. While still developing, Washington clearly took a nice step forward as a full-time starter after being thrown into the mix following Nesbitt’s injury in 2010. Additional credit goes to offensive lineman Omoregie Uzzi, who helped Tech overcome some depth issues up front with an all-conference season.

Defensive M.V.P. What’s the biggest key to a successful 3-4 defense? Having a stout nose tackle lies first and foremost; for now, the Jackets are still hoping for stronger play in the center of the three-man defensive front. But the Jackets are improving at linebacker, especially with the nice pairing of Julian Burnett in the middle and Jeremiah Attaochu on the outside. Burnett, a second-team all-A.C.C. pick, led the Jackets in tackles with 120, far ahead of his next-closest competition. Attaochu led the team in tackles for loss and sacks, helping him earn honorable mention all-conference honors. Only a sophomore, Attaochu could be in line for a breakout season in 2012.

Stock watch While the A.C.C. has yet to release its conference schedule for this coming season, the Jackets have sealed their non-conference slate: Southeastern Louisiana, Middle Tennessee State, B.Y.U. and Georgia, with only the latter on the road. At worst, Tech’s looking at a split of those four. Once again, the season will come down to how the Jackets fare against the heart of the A.C.C. – Virginia Tech, Miami (Fla.) and, based on last season, Virginia. If the offense can locate a receiver to replace Hill, helping the passing game retain some of its potency, there’s no reason why the Jackets can’t be a factor in the Coastal division. Unfortunately, the Hokies – as one example – have far fewer questions to address. For today, the Jackets are not the division leader in the clubhouse; much can change until August, but any lingering issues need to be addressed before booking this team for a return to a major bowl.

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  1. GTWrek says:

    One borderline-trivial correction. Southeast Louisana is off the schedule. Tech playing on Labor Day night knocked them off. Don’t understand why that game couldn’t just be moved. Maybe SE Louisana just couldn’t break other commitments.

    In fact the sole holdup for the release of the entire ACC schedule at the moment is that Tech needs an opponent for 9/8.

    Since the Tech-VPISU game was (still unofficially) moved to labor day night, on 9/3, GT is trying to get a FCS opponent for the next Saturday game, 5 days later. A deal is expected to be done this week so the schedule can be released.

    Probably the most optimistic note for Tech fans going into next year is that we were the 2nd youngest team in the nation last year, only more experienced than Auburn. 17 starters including the QB are returning.

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