by Rick Mehaffey (guest blogger for Flip the Field)
The question heading into the 2014 football season: can the Yellow Jackets break out of the rut of a 7-win season?
The answer: Not very likely.
The Vegas bookmakers set Tech’s win total at 6 ½, and most experts have slotted the Jackets at the fifth or sixth spot in the seven-team Coastal Division of the ACC.
Why the pessimism in the Georgia Tech Football Season?
For starters, Tech’s leading passer (Vad Lee), leading rusher (David Sims) and leading receiver (Robert Godhigh) from the 2013 team which went 7-6 are gone. The trio accumulated 55% of Tech’s rushing yards last season.
The talented Lee, who was never a good fit running Coach Paul Johnson’s triple option offense, stunned Jackets’ fans this winter when he announced he was transferring because he was unhappy at Tech. He landed at James Madison. Sims and Godhigh completed their eligibility.
On the defensive side of the ball, All-America LB Jeremiah Attaochu, who was a big time playmaker, is now suiting up for the Buffalo Bills. Standout DB Jamea Thomas and LB Brandon Watts are also playing in the NFL.
Along with Lee, a second wave of off-season transfers have plagued the Jackets’ depth. Top recruit WR Myles Autry asked for his release after his brother Anthony was booted off the team. Third string QB Ty Griffin left to join his brother at Oregon, and RB Travis Custis and DE Jabari Hunt-Days were declared academically ineligible.
Johnson’s seat could heat up this fall. Yellow Jackets fans have grown weary of 7-victory seasons, losing to Georgia, and dreary showings in bowl trips to outposts like El Paso and Shreveport. Fans yearn for Georgia Tech to become relevant on the national college football scene.
Tech needs a strong 8-4 regular season record (7-5 with a win over Georgia will also do) to get keep the fans from revolting. But the chance of Tech playing in a bowl game for the 18th consecutive season – the third longest streak in the nation – is shaky.
Johnson’s critics point to his recent pitiful record against the Big 4 – Georgia, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Miami – as evidence that he’s overstayed his welcome at The Flats. If you include the post season, Tech has an embarrassing record of 2-18 against those four schools and its bowl game opponents in the past four years. The only signature victory during this time was a 31-17 upset over Top 10 Clemson in 2011. Even Georgia Tech’s Sun Bowl victory over Southern Cal after the 2012 season was discounted because the Trojans put up a lackluster effort.
In his first two years, Johnson went 20-7, beat Georgia, and won the ACC title, and the Jackets played in the Orange Bowl after the 2009 season. Since then, Tech is 28-25 and most of the victories have come against overmatched opponents.
Tougher competition in the Coastal could also see Tech slip to the lower level of the division. Duke, North Carolina, and Pitt – three teams Tech defeated in 2013 — are expected to be stronger. The only sure wins appear to be cupcakes Wofford and Alabama A&M, division foe Virginia, and Tulane. NC State is also a winnable game, but the Big 4 – Georgia, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Miami – all have more talented rosters. Early Vegas lines have Georgia Tech underdogs to Georgia (by 17 points), Clemson (5 ½ points), Virginia Tech (7 points) and Miami (2 points).
On the positive side, Johnson’s teams have hung tough against stronger opponents. Last season, Tech led Georgia 20-0 in the first half before its defense collapsed and the Jackets lost in double overtime. Although the final score was no indication of how close the game was played, the Tech led Miami by 10 points and was driving for a touchdown before folding in the fourth quarter in a 15-point loss. And the 17-10 defeat to Virginia Tech was another game that slipped away.
Tech fans hope Johnson’s stylized offense could be the equalizer this season.
Junior QB Justin Thomas has the speed, quickness and experience to run the triple option and is a better fit for this offense than Lee. However, his passing skills are suspect, and his small stature (5-foot-10, 185) raises the question if he can take the pounding of an option quarterback. Thomas will be pushed by backup Tim Byerly, considered a tougher runner.
B back Zach Laskey accumulated almost 500 rushing yards as the backup to Sims, and can be counted on to earn tough yards between the tackles. And Johnson has another stable of dependable A backs: Synjyn Days, Charles Perkins, Broderick Snoddy, Deon Hill, Tony Zenon, and Dennis Andrews.
WR Andre Smelter (21 receptions, 345) made some big plays and was the team’s leading receiver last season.
The offensive line is anchored by RG Shaq Mason, an All-ACC player, and RT Chase Roberts.
The question for the offense is the same as always for Johnson: Can he develop a passing game that will keep defensive coordinators from stacking the line with nine defenders? A one-dimensional offense only works against either overmatched defenses or coordinators who haven’t seen the triple option. Case in point: In Tech’s 56-0 shellacking of Syracuse last year, the Orange defenders appeared clueless. Unfortunately, Syracuse isn’t on the schedule again this season.
Defensively, only four starters return. MLB Quayshawn Nealy, the team’s second leading tackler last season (66 tackles, 2 INT), has been listed on some All-ACC teams, and DT Adam Gotsis has developed into a quality pass rusher.
K Harrison Butker was consistent as a freshman last season: 10 of 14 FG, including five FG longer than 40 yards.
The special teams star of 2012, Jamal Golden, missed most of last season with an injury but expects to regain his status as one of the top return specialists in the country. Golden returned two kicks for touchdowns in ’12, and was ranked sixth in the nation in punt returns and 10th in kickoff returns.
Johnson’s teams have surprised the experts in the past. His first Yellow Jackets squad in 2008 was predicted to finish in the lower level of the division, and it overachieved, going 9-4 and defeating Georgia. Of course, that roster included future NFL stars WR Demaryius Thomas, DE Derrick Morgan, S Morgan Burnett and RB Johnathon Dwyer. Johnson has recruited few NFL prospects, and other than Mason, there are no other projected future pro players on the roster.
Six or seven victories seems to be the fate of most Tech teams. The Jackets have won either six or seven games eight times in the past 12 seasons. And since Bobby Dodd retired after the 1966 season, Tech has had just eight seasons with 9 or more victories.
Unless Johnson can coax his players to overachieve, the ’14 Jackets appear destined for a 5-7 record, or with some luck 6-6 or 7-5, with another lower-level bowl trip.
Rick, thanks so much for the awesome right up of the Georgia Tech Football 2014 Outlook! May you be wrong, for my sake!
Rick is a lifetime friend of my (Melissa’s) husband and a diehard Georgia Tech fan (although a bit on the pessimistic side).
Unfortunately, I may have to agree with him this year. Last year, I was overly optimistic, Rick overly pessimistic and we ended up splitting the difference. This year, I think the ACC is getting tougher and the triple option may have outlasted its welcome. May the 2014 team prove us wrong. I predict a positive 8-4 season with losses to VaTech, Miami, Clemson and Georgia – a mid-tier bowl with a tight victory. Just don’t ask me to back that with any Ben Franklins.