Following three straight seasons of seven or fewer wins, the Jackets enter 2014 looking to make a push for their fourth Coastal Division title and a berth in the ACC title game. As Paul Johnson enters his seventh season at Tech, the defense looks to build on some momentum under new coordinator Ted Roof. The offense will also feature some promising weapons in 2014.
Tech lost five starters from last season’s offense, including three linemen, but has found capable replacements for 2014. Sophomore Justin Thomas takes over at quarterback for Vad Lee, who transferred after struggling to adjust to running the option offense. Despite being much smaller than Lee, Thomas’s breakaway speed is something no quarterback under Johnson has ever brought to the table. Between Thomas and a stable of senior A-backs, the Jackets have several speed options in the backfield, and senior B-backs Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days are both very capable power runners. The success of the offense will come down to the performance of the offensive line, which is breaking in three new starters.
Last year’s defense featured three eventual 2014 draft picks, and only four starters return to a unit that will alternate between a 4-2-5 base package and a more traditional 4-3. Tech will deploy the 4-2-5 for this game with junior Demond Smith starting at the nickel, a position that demands excellent run support and coverage skills in this alignment. The rest of the back seven should be in good shape, with senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy anchoring the linebacking corps and safeties Jamal Golden and Isaiah Johnson returning from injuries. Junior defensive tackle Adam Gotsis is the only returning starter on the line, but Gotsis was very disruptive against the run last season with 14.5 tackles for loss. While the pass rush remains a question mark, that should not be a major concern against run-heavy Wofford. Despite inexperience, the defense should excel against Wofford.
Wofford is looking to rebound after a late-season slide ended their playoff hopes in 2013. The Terriers reached the FCS playoffs three straight times from 2010-12, and midway through last season they were 5-2 and ranked No. 12 in FCS. Despite the strong start, they went on to drop their final four games to end the season at 5-6, ending the playoff streak and marking their first losing season since 2009. With Head Coach Mike Ayers entering his 27th season at the helm and 13 starters returning, Wofford will look to start 2014 with their second-ever win over an FBS team.
The Terriers use a run-heavy offense known as the “wishbone.” The base formation is similar to Tech’s standard flexbone formation under Paul Johnson, but one wide receiver is replaced with a tight end, and one halfback lines up alongside the fullback. Wofford ran the ball on 82.5 percent of their plays in 2013 and averaged 269.9 rushing yards per game. The biggest threats for Tech’s defense will be fullback Jonny Martin, who scored seven touchdowns last season, and halfback Will Gay, who had 486 rushing yards and 205 receiving yards in 2013. The key for Wofford, though, will be to complete some passes early on and prevent Tech from bringing eight defenders into the box to stop the run.
Defensively, Wofford runs a 3-4 alignment, and all three starters return along the defensive line. The best of the corps is senior defensive end Tarek Odom, who racked up 13 tackles for loss and two sacks last season and earned all-conference honors. Wofford returns both starting corners and two starting linebackers, but both safeties will be new starters and could be vulnerable. The Terriers are slated to start two redshirt freshmen and as many as four sophomores on defense, so overall this will be a very young unit. Their biggest challenge will be up front, as starting defensive ends Odom and Tom Bove are both listed below 260 pounds, while Tech’s smallest starting offensive lineman is listed at 284 pounds. If Odom and Bove are able to get around their blockers and repeatedly disrupt plays in the backfield, Tech could have problems getting option plays going.
PREDICTION: Tech 56, Wofford 7