Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 23 Georgia Tech.
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Fuck, nothing cures the Monday blues like a stone-faced Jimbo Fisher turning off the headset and lapping up that sweet defeat. The fact remains, however, that predicting the ACC Coastal Division the past six years has been a thankless task—you’re either right and your team of choice is inevitably wrecked (or jobbed) by Fisher’s Seminoles or Dabo Swinney’s Tigers in the title game, or you’re wrong and they end up going 3-9, because the margin between tiers in this league is really that thin.
The Coastal has largely been held hostage by Florida State and Clemson since 2009, and that makes it plenty easy as a casual college football fan to just, well, forget about anyone below the top rung of the ACC (and the Pac-12, and the SEC, and the Big Ten, and especially the Big 12—really, there are just too many teams.) And bless the cursed souls that have to cover the ACC in particular year-in and year-out. Three years of covering Duke was plenty to understand that, actually, there’s little concrete information about the division to understand. Miami, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech, thanks to either history or lack of big-time competition, all largely get first dibs on their state’s top recruits, making them good enough to look like an offensive juggernaut on paper before they go out and suck wind against a handful of bottom-dwellers. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech, in the middle of prime SEC crootin’ land, well, it just keeps chugging along with three-star recruits, always close thanks to a tried-and-true offensive scheme, but never quite pushing itself over the top. And you know what? That’s been plenty to keep Paul Johnson employed, because hate him or love him, the man’s good as hell at what he does.
In the spread option system (the triple option is a play, not an offensive system!), Johnson has masterfully perfected how to inflict the most harm with the least amount of star power. Johnson is the smuggest motherfucker in college football, but I think it kind of works for him? While plenty of other men have had their head-coaching careers snuffed out all around him the past nine seasons, Johnson has remained; he’s encountered some low points, sat on a couple warm-but-not-really-hot seats, but in the end, defensive coordinators are dingbats and only so many nose tackles can handle a double-team, so Johnson stays put. The Yellow Jackets even develop a top-20 NFL wideout every few years just so they can point to them and tell coaches looking to bash them in recruiting to kindly fuck off. He confounded people at Hawaii and Navy; Georgia Tech is no different.
But as I said, things can be a bit unpredicatable in the Coastal and that can put fans on edge. For instance, the Yellow Jackets were supposed to be a conference, not division, contender in 2015 after going 11-3 in 2014; they instead went 3-9. Last year, nobody really knew what the team was supposed to be given the prior season. They ended up 9-4.
In addition to a three-point loss to Pittsburgh, the Yellow Jackets struggled to notch wins against the ACC’s top-tier teams last season, dropping games to North Carolina, Clemson, and Miami. Their overall record sounds pretty good, though it was weakened by the fact that, save the Virginia Tech upset, every one of Georgia Tech’s wins came against middling programs struggling to stay above water in their own divisions. Hell, the fact that “game-winner” is a word that needs to be used in a recap of its Boston College victory should say plenty about how the range of Yellow Jackets’ play in 2016.
Heading into the upcoming season, Georgia Tech seems as good a pick as any to walk away with the Coastal; the biggest strike against that proposition is that unlike the unstable past two years, Johnson’s offense—which he calls from the sidelines with no set playlist—will have a new man running the show.
The Yellow Jacket offense will have to deal with turnover at the quarterback position for the first time in three years, as reigning starter Justin Thomas graduated in the spring to cap a career stuffed with 2,409 rushing yards and 22 scores to go with 4,748 yards and 40 touchdowns through the air. Filling the hole will be Matthew Jordan, who saw limited time as a redshirt sophomore last year, tossing nine passes and rushing 65 times for 243 yards. His shining moment came on the road at Virginia Tech in Week 11, when he had to step in for an injured Thomas (the offense was also missing four other starters) and ran for a pair of scores to lead the Yellow Jackets to a stunning 30-20 victory over the eventual Coastal Division champs. This included a 53-yard scoring dash that should give Georgia Tech fans plenty of hope for their quarterback-to-be.
Jordan spent his summer recovering from foot surgery after suffering a non-contact injury in spring ball, but his rehab process reportedly took less time than expected, allowing him to suit up with the Yellow Jackets for the start of training camp a week ago. Like any quarterback with limited game exposure, judging Jordan’s future success or failure to operate the Georgia Tech over the course of a full season is tough, but he’s got the speed and power; the question is whether he’s got the arm or the timing.
Signal-caller aside, the Yellow Jackets will actually have the whole dang crew back in terms of skills players—B-back Dedric Mills is returning for his sophomore season after busting out as a rookie; he’ll be joined by A-back Clinton Lynch (he also missed the spring due to surgery) and either Qua Searcy or J.J. Green, as the two are competing for the other starting slot. Both Lynch and Searcy have extra-gear speed that make them dangerous should any daylight appear. They’ll miss the bruising running of Marcus Marshall, who transferred to James Madison at the end of 2016, but Mills has two perfectly large shoulders for defenders to bounce off of, so the backfield should hold up it’s end of the bargain just fine.
On defense, the Yellow Jackets bring back eight starters from last year’s squad, but as should be pointed out every time one comes across a group that allowed over seven yards per play, getting guys back does you no good if those guys aren’t at least a little better than they were the year before. The top returners can be found in the secondary, starting with senior corner Lance Austin, the ACC’s reigning pass breakup leader (15 in 2016) and the guy who returned the blocked kick to fuck up Jimbo’s perfect season. He’ll be joined by Corey Griffin and A.J. Gray, who combined for two picks and 8.5 tackles for loss last year.
The main thing Georgia Tech will have to avoid defensively will be its willingness to allow teams to eat up easy first downs in hopes of preventing any big plays; defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s plan works, but it also keeps the defense on the field longer, thus chipping away at one of the advantages their run-heavy offense grants them. While letting up 24.5 points per game like Roof’s bunch did last year is statistically fine, the only other number that matters when observing it is points scored; last year, that number was 28.2. Again, that’s okay, but unless the Yellow Jackets are going to return to their 2011 form, they’re going to have to be a bit more aggressive with their defensive playcalling to move up in this league.
Typically, any time the Deadspin 25, or any preview for that matter, features a fullback as the most attractive feature of an offense, it’s safe to assume said offense is ass; Dedrick Mills is the exception.
The 2016 season was Mills’s first in the college ranks, just a year removed from his time playing linebacker for Ware High School and digging graves to supplement his family’s income. Despite being suspended for two games last season for a “violation of team rules” (which team rules, we’ll never know!), Mills led Georgia Tech in all rushing categories save yards per rush, going for 771 yards and 12 touchdowns on 151 carries. He wrapped the year with an MVP performance in the team’s bowl win, solidifying himself as the team’s known 2017 starter.
Mills is a compact runner; he rarely gets popped underneath the pads, keeping his 5-foot-10 frame low to the ground and churning his legs. This helped him finish his initial season with the lowest percentage of runs for no-gain or a loss in the entire nation. And for a fullback, the guy has wheels, with the speed to breakaway from the majority of first and second-level defenders as well as the occasional wrong-footed safety. This year, presumably with a full season’s worth of games in front of him, Mills will step into the role of veteran starter with a pair of experienced backs to his left and right; as long as Matthew can figure things out under center, expect Mills to grow into one of the conference’s premier running backs, even if you don’t watch him.
Georgia Tech theoretically can make the playoff because they are fully capable of claiming the ACC Coastal division title and earning themselves a date with either Clemson, Florida State, or maybe Louisville. From there, sure, the Yellow Jackets could certainly have a great game behind the play of their breakout quarterback and stud sophomore fullback and go on to mindfuck Nick Saban so bad in the playoff that he quits the sport.
Here in reality, Georgia Tech is probably looking at a seven- or eight-win season at best, with some growing pains to be expected for Matthew and the fresh blood on the defensive line. Still, even with N.C. State, UNC, Miami, and Virginia Tech all expecting to build upon their 2016 campaigns, the Yellow Jackets have just as much a right to hope for a division title and a New Year’s bowl game as the next team thanks to a genius offensive system and the talent in the backfield.
Paul Johnson is for sure a dick! But he’s kind of funny about it sometimes and enjoys pissing off the SEC, so he’s largely fine.
That’s true, by the way—the Yellow Jackets beat Vanderbilt (cool), Georgia, and Kentucky last season. I don’t know that I recommend you tune in for their season-opener against Tennessee, but definitely turn on Johnson’s postgame presser if they win.
Sept. 4: Tennessee
Sept. 9: Jacksonville State
Sept. 16: @UCF
Sept. 23: Pitt
Sept. 30: UNC
Oct. 12: @ Miami
Oct. 21: Wake Forest
Oct. 28: @ Clemson
Nov. 4: @ Virginia
Nov. 11: Virginia Tech
Nov. 18: @ Duke
Nov. 25: Georgia