The official preseason ACC rankings come out later this week when media flocks to Greensboro (N.C.) for the annual ACC Kickoff, and two things are certain.
First, Florida State will be picked to win the Atlantic Division – as the loaded Seminoles should be – although it won’t be unanimous. Some writer, wearing an faded orange polo from 1997 and representing a low country website, will not only pick the Tigers to finish first, he’ll vote Florida State in fourth place for good measure.
Secondly, Georgia Tech won’t get much respect. The voting will mirror that of most national preseason publications which project the Yellow Jackets to finish somewhere between fourth and sixth place in the Coastal Division.
Welcome to Groundhog Day in the Triad area of North Carolina where every year Georgia Tech is projected to finish lower than, well, just about everyone.
And every year Paul Johnson’s teams exceed those expectations.
It’s true, look it up. Since Johnson arrived in 2008, no ACC team has exceeded preseason expectations more than Johnson’s Yellow Jackets, and it’s not close.
You would think after six years of under-rating Tech, the “experts” might know better.
This year those experts will see that the Yellow Jackets return just 10 starters and they’ll think: “This is the year the bowl streak (17 consecutive) comes to an end. This is the year Tech finishes below .500 in the ACC (most Tech players weren’t yet born the last time that happened).”
I say Georgia Tech will be better than almost anyone thinks this fall, and here are five reasons why:
1. The schedule is manageable
Unlike some previous years, Georgia Tech doesn’t have the ridiculous task of playing a division rival on just five days rest. No Thursday night games, no Labor Day games in Blacksburg, no mid-season road games in Provo, Utah, and for the love of Dodd, no game in Clemson for the first time since 2011.
The Yellow Jackets don’t play Florida State and they play Clemson in Bobby Dodd Stadium, a place the Tigers haven’t won since ’03. There are games against NC State and Virginia, two teams that combined to go 0-16 in conference play last year, and games vs. Duke and North Carolina, which Paul Johnson has beaten a combined 11 times in 12 meetings over the last six years.
2. The quarterback situation is better
So., QB, Justin Thomas
I think a lot of Vad Lee, who transferred to James Madison following a season in which he started all 13 games at quarterback. I hope he has a very productive career with the Dukes.
Georgia Tech, however, will be more productive at quarterback this season. Both sophomore Justin Thomas and junior Tim Byerly, although different in style, have both bought-in to the offense.
How Johnson uses the QBs this fall – whether it’s almost exclusively Thomas, one of the fastest quarterbacks in college football, or some type of combination of Thomas and Byerly, a tough kid with a good arm – will be fascinating to watch.
3. Special teams have a chance to be… special
It wasn’t that long ago when Virginia Tech returned a kickoff for a touchdown that cost the Yellow Jackets a victory in Blacksburg. There was also a muffed punt in Miami that the Hurricanes recovered for a touchdown, a mishandled kickoff at Clemson that was downed at the 1 and a missed PAT, of all things, that prevented the Jackets from a fourth-quarter tie at UGA.
While Tech’s special teams have improved over the years, those remain painful memories for Tech faithful.
With who the Yellow Jackets return on special teams, combined with the addition of new coordinator Ray Rychleski, I believe this is the season that Tech wins a game (or two) on special teams.
Even Johnson, who rarely gives such accolades in July, said that sophomore kicker Harrison Butker has a chance to be one of the best in the nation. Punter Ryan Rodwell started half of the 2012 season before redshirting last year, and the Yellow Jackets rarely punt anyway. Tech even has two dependable long snappers.
The real strength, however, should be in the return game. Junior Jamal Golden ranked in the top 10 nationally in both kickoff and punt returns in 2012 before missing most of 2013 with an injury. Sophomores Lynn Griffin and Dennis Andrews have potential to be equally dangerous. Senior DeAndre Smelter was one of the ACC’s better punt returners last season.
4. The defense will be as good, if not better
“How could that be possible?” you ask.
Georgia Tech can’t replace defensive Jeremiah Attaochu, the school’s all-time sacks leader, and Jemea Thomas, one of Tech’s most versatile and productive defensive backs in the Paul Johnson era. Those guys now play for the Chargers and Patriots, respectively.
While Tech will sorely miss Attaochu and Thomas – and the Jackets took a kick to the shin when junior Jabari Hunt-Days, a possible replacement for Attaochu, was suspended for academic reasons – I believe the returning Yellow Jacket players begin to fully grasp defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s system in this, Roof’s second season.
And, it’s not like the cupboard is bare.
Junior tackle Adam Gotsis has a chance to be one of the ACC’s premier linemen and the Australian gives Tech a pass rush, albeit from the interior. Senior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy just keeps getting better and more productive each season. With senior Isaiah Johnson, who missed last season to recover from a knee injury, returning to action, I think the Yellow Jackets will be improved in the secondary.
5. The big-play threat is back on offense
Since Johnson arrived at Tech prior to the 2008 season, the offense has never been a liability. In fact, over the last six years combined, no team in college football has rushed for more yards and the Yellow Jackets always seem to score plenty of points.
Missing the past three seasons, however, has been the true big-play threat. While this roster may not include a Demaryius Thomas, Jonathan Dwyer or Anthony Allen, collectively this group may be Tech’s most explosive since 2009.
Where’s this explosiveness going to come from? It starts up front where the offensive line should be a little better, a little deeper and led by senior Shaquille Mason, a legitimate All-American candidate. Behind that line I believe senior B-back Zach Laskey rushes for 1,000 yards this fall. And when the defense puts nine in the box, Tech should be able to throw it better than last season when the Jackets ranked dead last (123rd) nationally in completion percentage.
The bottom line is that Georgia Tech – Johnson’s teams in particular – seem to thrive when the Yellow Jackets can muster that us-against-the-world mentality. Prior to the 2008 season, Sports Illustrated projected Johnson’s first Yellow Jacket team to finish 3-9. All Tech did that season was win nine games including victories against Georgia, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech.
Pick the Yellow Jackets near the bottom of the Coastal Division at your own risk.