Photo by Brenda Lin

Paul Johnson made no bones about it.

“The conference tries to screw us every way they can,” complained Johnson, courtesy of ajc.com. “It happens every year. It has to be intentional. There’s no other explanation for it.”

The ‘it’ Johnson refers to is the fact that three of Tech’s opponents will play the Jackets coming off a bye week, tops in the conference. Keeping in mind how uncommon the Jackets’ triple option offense is (and how an extra week of preparation can make all the difference), it is not difficult to understand Johnson’s ire.

Yet the Jackets have more looming on the horizon than a few inconveniently-timed contests. From an opening match versus an SEC power to a date with the reigning national champions, Tech’s 2017 schedule promises, if nothing else, excitement.

The Jackets will start the season at the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where they will compete against Tennessee for the first time in 30 years. Tied with Georgia and Kentucky at third place in the east division standings of the SEC, Tennessee will be Tech’s first of three consecutive out of conference matchups at the start of next season.

Competition between the ACC and the SEC has fueled conversation for awhile now, and Tech made a statement last season by beating Vanderbilt, Georgia and Kentucky, the last in the TaxSlayer Bowl. But the Volunteers, looking at a future beyond graduating senior passer Josh Dobbs, will not afford them a fourth such win without a fight.

Fans that hoped the Jackets would get a break with two easier out of conference games after opening the season against Tennessee will be sorely disappointed. Though Jacksonville State and the University of Central Florida do not seem like the most formidable opponents, underestimating them would be a grave mistake.

Jacksonville State only lost two games last season (albeit at the FCS level). UCF finished the season at 6-7, but with former Oregan offensive coordinator Scott Frost at the helm, the Knights are not a team to be taken lightly in any given week. UCF is also the former employer of current Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury.

These games give way to a conference schedule that rivals any in college football in terms of rigor. Home contests against Pitt and North Carolina look more winnable than a season ago. The Panthers lose quarterback Nathan Peterman and running back James Conner to the NFL, while the Tar Heels will have to make do without quarterback Mitch Trubisky and receiver Ryan Switzer. Nevertheless, the Jackets must break losing streaks against both.

Miami, Wake Forest and Clemson all have bye weeks before their scheduled games against the Jackets. Apart from their bye week before Miami, there will be no reprieve before Tech will have to meet Wake Forest and Clemson on the field.

Virginia Tech, ranked first in the coastal division, and Duke, ranked last, will be the last two ACC games of 2017 for Tech. Duke’s abysmal conference standing leaves many fans with a false sense of security, but one need look no further than the second half of last season’s matchup as a reminder to take the Blue Devils seriously.

As is tradition, the Jackets will end their regular season by playing host to the Georgia Bulldogs. While the Jackets pulled off a 28-27 squeaker in Athens, Tech has not defended their home turf successfully since 1999.

The Bulldogs will not make that feat easy; sophomore Jacob Eason is regarded as one of the finest young passers in the country and is suitably backed by recruit Jake Fromm.

Repeating a 9-4 record with a new quarterback will not be easy for Tech, let alone topping it. But if last year’s overachievement proved anything, perhaps it is that some optimism has been earned.