(The fifth of 12 ACC team previews)
The Chan Gailey years brought a bland, stodgy level of predictability to Georgia Tech's football program. Every year, the process was the same. Collect seven wins and move along to next season. If Calvin Johnson was around, maybe nine wins could be extracted.
There is some predictability now that Paul Johnson is entrenched for the foreseeable future. The Yellow Jackets will run the triple option. They will cause fits to opponents. They generally won't beat themselves.
Oh, and 9-3 is the new number to bank on.
Sure, Georgia Tech will be better than that on occasion (like the 11-3 from a year ago). But as long as Johnson is around and the team isn't decimated by injuries, the floor for the Yellow Jackets seems like it isn't particularly low.
That's important heading into this year, since a common analyst might see that Demaryius Thomas (big loss) and Jonathan Dwyer (eminently replaceable loss) are gone along with the two biggest names on the defense (Derrick Morgan and Morgan Burnett) and assume Georgia Tech is in for a decline.
Perhaps a modest one is coming, yet it won't be big. Get used to seeing the Yellow Jackets in the Coastal Division race. With Johnson calling the shots, that isn't going to change any time soon.
When we last saw them ... : Georgia Tech produced a feeble offensive performance in an Orange Bowl loss to Iowa (in the coldest Orange Bowl ever, as Dick Stockton intoned on a repeating loop throughout the game) to spoil what was otherwise a pretty enjoyable season.
The Yellow Jackets didn't beat Georgia for a second straight season, but they did wrap up their first outright ACC title since 1990 and hung around the top 10 in the polls after beating Virginia Tech in mid-October.
There were some nits to pick for the season as a whole, certainly, but it was further evidence Johnson wasn't going to be a part of a stale, Gailey-like rut. Even if Iowa could stop Georgia Tech's offense with a month of prep time (much like Louisiana State did a year earlier in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl), it doesn't seem like ACC schools made all that much progress in doing so on a week-to-week basis.
Included below are three sets of yards per game (rush, pass, total), points per game, total turnovers and record against conference opponents for the Yellow Jackets the last two seasons:
GEORGIA TECH OFFENSE vs. ACC OPPONENTS, 2008 vs. 2009
Everything got better offensively, or at least very nearly everything. Players were more accustomed to Johnson's system, and pieces that didn't fit quite as well were further weeded out. Not every year will be as good as 2009, but most won't be too far off that mark.
Biggest question: Stopping the run. Nothing makes a coach take notice of a problem quite as much as when it surfaces in a rivalry or postseason game.
Or both. The Yellow Jackets allowed more than 300 yards rushing to both Georgia (a loss) and Clemson (a win, but barely thanks to C.J. Spiller) and yielded 172 yards to Iowa in the Orange Bowl loss.
This wasn't new. Georgia Tech surrendered more than 200 yards rushing in defeats of Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, giving them a 3-1 record when getting run over for that much.
Nonetheless, an efficient running game from an opponent is no way to go through a season again. To that end, Johnson hired former Virginia coach Al Groh to take over the defense.
Groh didn't turn out to be a great head coach. And while Groh's smart and hard-working, he probably won't win many popularity contests.
But Lord Groh knows defense as well as anyone, and to his credit some bad Virginia teams never quit on him. His addition was the best move any ACC school made with its coaching staff last year. He might not solve all the defensive woes, but here's guessing he comes close.
Biggest asset: Quarterback Joshua Nesbitt. The Yellow Jackets will learn just how replaceable Dwyer was when Anthony Allen uncorks a 1,000-yard season. They don't want to discover just how difficult it will be to jump in for Nesbitt midstream.
That would be the job for Tevin Washington if Nesbitt, who ran for 1,037 yards and 18 touchdowns last year, gets hurt. Nesbitt is one of the most irreplaceable options in the country, and his ability to run Johnson's scheme is particularly efficient. As long as he's in one piece, Georgia Tech will go into every game with at least a chance (and, in most cases, a likelihood) of winning.
Best case: The Yellow Jackets' defense adjusts to Groh's scheme quickly and the team rattles off seven straight victories before facing a critical stretch against Clemson, Virginia Tech and Miami. After one stumble in there, Georgia Tech rallies to handle Georgia and whoever comes out of the Atlantic Division to win back-to-back ACC titles for the first time while harboring hopes of a top-five finish.
Worst case: Nesbitt deals with nagging injuries all season --- to the point he can play, but not as effectively as he did a year ago. The defense still gives up nearly five yards a run and the Yellow Jackets suffer a surprising early loss (perhaps at depleted North Carolina). Miami and Virginia Tech exploit pure talent advantages for November victories, and Georgia does the same a few weeks later. Georgia Tech winds up 8-4 --- still better than Gailey territory --- and heads to a winnable mid-tier bowl.
Where we'll see them in three months: Georgia Tech might not wind up in Charlotte. Virginia Tech will be its usual 10-win (at minimum) self, and Miami is much improved.
The Yellow Jackets, though, will have a say in things.
Georgia Tech got a lift from the schedule rotation. Clemson is a permanent crossover rival, but dates with N.C. State and Wake Forest sound better than dealing with Boston College or Florida State (which matched Georgia Tech yard for yard in last season's defense-optional showdown).
Nesbitt and Allen will be a brutal combination for defenses to contend with, and someone will emerge from the wide receiver scrum to provide a semi-decent possibility for Nesbitt to throw to on occasion. The defense, while not overwhelming, should be better with most of its starters back and an upgrade at coordinator.
Ultimately, one of the most crucial numbers in the chart listed above was the turnover total. Georgia Tech halved that figure in conference play last season and came out of it with a trip to the league title game despite playing in the stronger of the ACC's two divisions. Nesbitt, better than ever at handling the demands of the option scheme, can keep that total low.
There's enough questions to prompt some pause in predicting a conference crown. Nevertheless, the Yellow Jackets won't stagger backward. This year might not result in Georgia Tech repeating as ACC champs, but it will further cement the program's regular baseline as a 9-3 season.