Paul Johnson and the spread option Tech offense took the college football universe by storm in 2014, and expectations have changed accordingly. Winning a New Year’s Six bowl game places a target squarely on a team’s back, and if the Jackets hope to build upon last year’s remarkable performance, they cannot afford to overlook any team on their schedule. That includes their Week 1 opponent, the Alcorn State Braves.
Like Tech, the Braves rely on a powerful run game to open up passing lanes. While Alcorn State’s ground-based attack allows the team to control time-of-possession battles and physically batter weaker opponents, it’s not conducive to large comebacks.
Ted Roof’s defense should focus on stuffing the run early and forcing the Braves to abandon the heart of their offense. That responsibility will fall in large part upon redshirt senior Tyler Marcordes, who is replacing stalwart Quayshawn Nealy at strong-side linebacker. While Nealy’s presence and production won’t be easily replaced, Marcordes is a known quantity, having started seven games last season. If he and running mates Beau Hankins and P.J. Davis can render quarterback John Gibbs, Jr. one-dimensional, the Braves will be unable to keep up with the explosive Tech offense.
The Jackets return four of five starters on the offensive line, but the loss of right guard Shaq Mason to graduation is a significant one. It is fitting that the large void Mason leaves be filled by towering redshirt sophomore Shamire Devine. At 6’7” and 366 pounds, there’s little doubt that the Atlanta native has traits that can’t be coached. The season opener will be Devine’s first start, however, and in order for Paul Johnson’s offense to function at a high level, he will have to win his one-on-one matchups consistently. Should he succeed, Justin Thomas and the running backs will dominate a largely inexperienced Braves defensive front.
After winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) for the first time in over two decades, the Braves’ contest versus Tech will mark the beginning of their title defense. All three of the team’s 2014 losses were one-possession games, including a 20-26 defeat at the hands of FBS opponent Southern Miss. Since the SWAC chooses not to compete in the FCS playoffs, Tech’s Week 1 opponent capped off its season by defeating reigning champion Southern University 38-24 in the conference championship. With the Jackets as Alcorn State’s only FBS opponent this year, the latter will look to make a statement that it can compete with a nationally recognized program.
Alcorn State was an offensive juggernaut in 2014, finishing second in the FCS in points per game and tying for first with an incredible 6.91 yards per play. At its helm this season will be senior quarterback John Gibbs, Jr., the reigning SWAC Co-Offensive Player of the Year. Ted Roof and the Tech defense will be forced to respect the Houston native; he not only passed for 21 touchdowns to the tune of 8.77 yards per attempt but also rushed for more yards than anyone else on the team.
Stymieing the Braves’ offense doesn’t merely end with stopping its quarterback, though; the group returns two other first-team All-SWAC athletes: tight end Jordan Payne and offensive lineman Isaac Simpson. Both Payne and Simpson could test the Tech front seven after the departure of Quayshawn Nealy.
Alcorn State will be hard pressed to recreate last season’s success, which saw them place top ten nationally in scoring defense and interceptions. After graduating a number of key players, the team returns a pair of first-team all-conference honorees, namely defensive lineman Darien Moody and defensive back Warren Gatewood. Growing pains are to be expected, but if Alcorn State can disrupt run plays early and force Justin Thomas to pass, the combination of an inexperienced Tech receiving corps and a ball-hawking Braves secondary could lead to turnovers and some real momentum for the visitors.