The question asked when Paul Johnson first accepted the job to coach Tech was, “Will the triple-option work at the highest level of college football?”
With a record of 15-5 after 20 games, the top offense in the ACC and No. 12 offense in the country, the answer so far has been that it will work. The speed of the development of the offense has been at a faster pace than fans and observers expected. Even the most optimistic projections did not predict Tech turning into a top-15 team just 20 games into Johnson’s tenure.
In just under a season and a half, Tech has beaten a top-five team at home for the first time since 1962, gained more rush yards in one game against Virginia Tech than anyone else in nearly a decade, defeated Florida State two times in a row (two more victories than Tech had earned before since Bobby Bowden became coach) and broken a streak of seven straight losses to rival Georgia.
For all of its accomplishments, Tech struggled early last year and had many problems with consistency on a week-to-week basis. The biggest issue throughout the season was ball control. Tech had two lost fumbles in each of its first three games, and the team fumbled and lost the ball twice in seven games over the course of the season.
When Tech has lost two fumbles or more under Johnson, they are just 6-4. They were 4-4 in 2008. With fewer than two fumbles, Tech is 9-1.
The Jackets had ups and downs all season. They had just 162 rush yards in the early-season win over Boston College, and two weeks later they posted 438 yards on the ground against Mississippi State. Two games after that, Tech managed just 79 rushing yards against FCS opponent Gardner-Webb.
The trend continued all season. Tech had 326 yards on the ground in a 21-point loss at North Carolina, then broke the 400-yard mark in wins over Miami and Georgia before stumbling in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against LSU.
The loss in the finale left questions lingering as to whether the offense was sustainable or simply a one-year wonder.
Johnson’s history would suggest otherwise: after his slow start at Navy he averaged almost nine wins a season while guiding the team to five straight bowl games.
The Jackets have built on the success last season, and with the development of junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt and junior wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, opposing defenses now must also account for the deep pass. Thomas leads the ACC in yards and yards per catch; he has already matched his 621-yard output in 2008 with 672 receiving yards this season.
Nesbitt has accumulated an efficiency rating that would rank with the top 25 quarterbacks in the nation if not for his limited number of attempts. He has also been more effective in the running game, gaining more than 90 yards rushing in all but two games this year. As defenses scheme to shut down junior B-back Jonathan Dwyer, Nesbitt has taken advantage and proven to be very effective as a runner and a distributor.
The rushing game has also added running backs who have provided offense weapons along with Nesbitt and Dwyer. Junior A-back Anthony Allen, a transfer from Louisville, is on pace for over 600 yards and is averaging 11.5 yards per carry.
In the recent historic wins over Virginia Tech and Florida State, the Jackets have scored a combined 77 points and racked up over 700 yards of rushing offense. The offense has been as effective as ever this season, helping to overcome a defense that carried the team at times last year but has struggled in 2009. Tech is currently 6-1 with the most difficult part of its schedule already complete. If the Jackets were to win four of their last five games, they would have just their fifth double-digit win since 1956.