When looking at a snapshot of Paul Johnson’s career to date at Tech, the “good” elements are definitely the most concentrated in 2014’s miraculous 11-3 Orange Bowl season, which was immediately followed up by the majority of the “bad” ones throughout an atrocious 3-9 2015 season where the only victories were against an FCS squad, a fellow 3-9 bottom dweller, and the FSU Kick Six. The past two years have been a blend of some “ugly” moments with an abundance of blown leads and missed opportunities. After being treated to both instantaneous lapses of judgement and drawn out second-half meltdowns (See: UVA, Miami, Duke), Tech faithful can only hope that some of the head-scratching decisions that caused an extremely talented organization to stumble will be used as teachable moments moving forward into 2018. If there’s anything consistent about the ACC Coastal division, it’s that outside of Miami on top and UVA on the bottom, it’s any man’s race to the postseason. I’ve highlighted three key ACC matchups that I believe are the key victories needed to break the trend of 4-4 inner-conference mediocrity and elevate Yellow Jacket football to its rightful place in an NY6 bowl once more.
Who are we playing? Pitt. However, this is not the same Pitt that rolled over and allowed Tech to rack up 400+ rushing yards with 6 players over 6.0 YPC (min. 3 carries) to open up ACC play last year. After a dumpster fire 2-5 start to open up 2017, Pitt’s surfeit of young starters slowly gelled together and managed to rack up wins against Duke, UVA, and a 13th-ranked Miami to close out the season.
What does this game offer? A chance to come back home 3-0 after what should be a pair of wins against Alcorn State/USF to open the season. Having some momentum going into the Clemson game would be nice; any improvement on a miniscule win likelihood percentage is significant. This is also a true must-win if we want to have any shot at competing for a spot in the ACC championship game, as whoever emerges victorious from the Coastal division will have a maximum of 2 conference losses.
When do we play them? Week 3.
Why are we going to win? Despite a year of growth, this is still the same team the Jackets trounced pretty handily last season in what was easily my personal favorite game of the year. Tech’s interior offensive line unit—along with Marshall, B-Back KirVonte Benson, and A-Back Qua Searcy—will all be staring down familiar faces that were handled with relative ease last year. Pitt lost both their top QBs from last year’s depth chart along with their entire special teams unit, so outside of a complete collapse offensively from Tech or vast improvements across the board from Pitt, this should be a winnable game for the Yellow Jackets.
How are we going to uniquely approach this opponent? Their front seven had three freshman and three sophomore starters, and since defending the triple-option gets easier the more familiar one is with how the system operates, it’s unlikely that Pitt’s defensive line will be as hesitant to pounce on the dive this time around which takes away some key yardage. The fact that the entire front unit is returning means that TaQuon Marshall will need to take advantage of Pitt’s two graduating DBs and use an early midrange aerial assault in the flats to keep their defensive ends honest and open up the outside ground game.
Prediction: 28-14 Tech.
Who are we playing? Duke
What does this game offer? Contingent upon wins at Bowling Green and Louisville, a win against Duke would not only give Tech its second 3 game win streak going into away games at a ranked VT and strong UNC, it would be a statement victory to put Tech at 6-1 overall. While the record may be built on the backs of our weaker early-season opponents, 6-1 easily puts us in contention to challenge Miami for control of the ACC Coastal.
When do we play them? Week 7.
Where? Home, but more importantly, it’s the first game that could (realistically) go either way for Tech in Bobby Dodd. Crowd presence will be a huge factor here.
Why are we going to win? Last year’s 23-point blowout was a 20-20 tie at halftime, which many have pointed to as an indicator that Tech had what it took to hang with them but failed to execute. The reality of the situation is: Duke is returning one of the best QBs in the ACC this year in Daniel Jones with his entire 2017 receiving corps to boot. The Blue Devils have explosive potential that they highlighted in their 60-7 manhandling of NC Central last season, and while Duke has a tendency to play down to the level of its ACC opponents (losses vs. FSU, @ UVA) that it should probably beat, banking on another team to be mentally weak is a poor recipe for success. By Week 7 our secondary should be solidified in the new Nate Woody system. The key to success comes in executing a preventative man-press coverage that limits Duke’s “big play potential” while playing a conservative and mistake-free offense.
How are we going to uniquely approach this opponent? Aggressive pass rush. Duke’s offensive line lost both starting tackles and their center, so if Tech can control the run and force the blue Devils into an early passing situation, putting Jones on a short timer could cause some turnovers that become offensive opportunities.
Prediction: 35-24 Duke.
Who are we playing? Miami
What does this game offer? A chance for the Jackets to prove themselves as future contenders in ACC play against a team they should’ve beat last year; potentially locking bowl eligibility if there are other unforeseen losses earlier on.
When do we play them? Week 10.
Why are we going to win? Realistically…they aren’t. Miami retained the majority of its talent from an impressive season that saw them unfortunately collapse at the year’s end. Mark Richt is a good man and a better coach that’s looking to establish himself as a new powerhouse in the ACC, especially now with Jimbo Fisher gone. If Tech is 7-2 or 6-3 coming into the matchup, look for Richt to run up the score for the playoff committee. That being said, IF Tech was to win this game, it would immediately vault the Jackets into the upper echelon of the Coastal division, which makes it one of the most important games of the season.
How are we going to uniquely approach this opponent? Control the clock and try to turn this into a defensive matchup. Malik Rosier isn’t anything special and neither is the line protecting him, so if Miami’s shutdown run defense is going to slow up our offense, we need to do the same to them if we want to have any chance of toppling the ‘Canes.
Prediction: 21-10 Miami.
Here are my shamelessly optimistic game predictions.
Alcorn State @ Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech @ USF
Georgia Tech @ Pitt
Clemson @ Georgia Tech
Bowling Green @ Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech @ Louisville
Duke @ Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech @ Virginia Tech
Georgia Tech @ UNC
Miami @ Georgia Tech
UVA @ Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech @ UGA
8-4 Record, Music City Bowl vs. a 9-3 Nebraska on Dec. 28, 35-24 Tech