Editor’s note: ‘Contested’ is the Sports section’s latest feature, a dialogue between the editor and assistant editor. This week, the topic is the future of Tech football head coach Paul Johnson as he enters his eleventh season at the helm.
Harsha: So John, the Alcorn State game is just over a week away, which means it’s time to get back to college football season. Tech has new uniforms, a quarterback with a year of experience under his belt, and let’s not forget new defensive coordinator Nate Woody from Appalachian State.
But the one constant over the last 10 seasons has been head coach Paul Johnson. I know fans blamed Ted Roof for a lot of the team’s collapses over the years, and for good reason. Who could forget the fact that Miami almost exclusively threw screen passes on their game-winning drive last season? But if Tech underachieves this season — let’s say they fail to get a bowl berth for the third time in the last season — should that be the end of the road for CPJ?
John: I’ve always thought that CPJ deserves a lot of leeway — seven straight bowl games should give you that. Last year was nothing short of a letdown, but beyond the scoreboard, Tech had a very strong team: they went 5-6, and lost three of those games by a combined total of six points. If the needle swung the other way, Tech would have been a Coastal contender if they had taken down Miami, and we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Tech got very unlucky last year, and I don’t think it’s right to crucify Johnson for how lucky or unlucky he is.
Harsha: I agree that there were some bad bounces of the ball, but at the end of the day, someone has to be accountable for failures on the offensive side of the ball. That’s supposed to be Johnson’s calling card, right? Tech hasn’t broken thirty points per game since their magical 2014-15 Orange Bowl campaign, and they have finished two straight years in the bottom half of FBS teams in scoring and points per game. We can talk about the offense being clock-management focused or whatnot, but the ball just is not getting into the end zone at the rate you would expect for a program that has traditionally hung its hat on a dominant offense and an adequate defense.
Maybe the assumption to make is that TaQuon Marshall is going to become a better passer this year, by which I mean he will not be the most statistically underwhelming passer in school history. Or should we expect the A-backs and B-backs to step up in their stead? What am I missing when it comes to the Tech offense moving forward?
John: The point of the triple option is not to run up the scoreboard on your opponent, it’s to steal as much time from them as possible while efficiently scoring – and Tech was 28th out of 130 FBS teams in red-zone conversion rate last season — so from my view, Johnson’s offense has done exactly what has been expected of it.
Tech’s main weakness last season was their defense. NC State did everyone at Tech a favor by hiring former defensive coordinator Ted Roof away, saving Johnson and Tech the uncomfortable role of firing a coach, but the end result is that it allowed Johnson to improve his defensive staff, which he did with a stellar hire of Nate Woody, former DC at App State. Johnson recognized his main weakness and made the necessary moves to improve this offseason — which to me, is the hallmark of a great coach.
Harsha: On one hand, I do have to commend Johnson for moving on from Roof, and I think it was clear over the course of the season during press conferences and interviews that he was pretty unhappy about the defense. It’s one of the things that makes covering Johnson more interesting than covering a typical football coach: he speaks his mind, even if that gets him in trouble occasionally. At the same time, hard as it may be for fans to believe, Roof’s defenses had been above-average among FBS teams for a number of years prior to last year’s disastrous campaign.
How about on the recruiting side? Some fans argue that Tech can’t recruit well because of Paul Johnson and the triple option. Others would argue that the triple option works at Tech because the school can’t recruit elite talent. Which side of this chicken-and-egg situation do you think is right?
John: Tech’s out-of-state acceptance rate was 19 percent this year, one of the lowest rates in the country. Tech is an extremely competitive environment that places a larger emphasis on education for student athletes than many other colleges in the ACC (one cannot help but remember UNC’s scandal), so it’s tricky to find the right mix of student athletes who will succeed at Tech in both football and academics, and so recruiting efforts can be handicapped. In that sense, I think the triple option helps with recruiting in that Tech does not need to land fifteen five-star recruits in every class to be a competitive team. For the foreseeable future, competitive football at Tech means the triple option, like it or not.
Harsha: I actually agree with you on this one. I do not think there are legions of four and five-star recruits who would attend Tech but have decided not to because we run the triple option. If you are looking for proof, look no further than the defense, which ran a pretty conventional scheme under Ted Roof (and had the benefit of Roof, a former college head coach, on the recruiting trail.) They were not getting top high school players left and right.
Sure, there are some head coaches who have such powerful offensive philosophies that they can convince recruits that scheme matters. Chip Kelly in his Oregon days, for example, was a visionary offensive mind. But those coaches are not coming to Tech.
And that brings me to the other issue with CPJ potentially being fired, though I absolutely think that should be on the table. In my opinion, it wouldn’t be a great vacancy as Power Five head jobs go. The Jackets have had relatively recent success (the Orange Bowl season) so a new head coach doesn’t get celebrated for making them nationally relevant again. Not to mention that a new coach would need at least three or four years to get his personnel into the program and developed. For example, he might need a tight end, which we don’t have right now.
In fact, I would say the Nate Woody hire is pretty indicative of what we would likely get in a head coach. A relatively high-achieving non-Power Five coach who isn’t courted by the big-name, blue-chip programs.
What would it take, short of an Urban Meyer/D.J. Durkin situation (let us hope it never comes close to that), for CPJ to be justifiably fired at the end of this season?
John: I think it would need to be a failure with the football program on all fronts. Tech loses every conference game except UVA and Louisville while the defense falls apart – and the Jackets pick up a few non-conference Ls along the way too. I don’t think that will realistically happen though —I think Tech can go 7-5 conservatively, and 10-2 generously (losses to Clemson and UGA). Even a 7-5 season with a bowl game victory should be enough to keep Johnson’s seat secure.