Paul Johnson will not look ahead. Why? Because he’s a football coach.
His players will not look ahead. Why? Because they know if they do and Johnson finds out, he will take their scholarship letter, wrap it around a Twinkie, shove it down their throat and drop them from a rooftop — just because that’s Johnson’s idea of tact, and maybe fun.
But I don’t play for Johnson and I’m pretty sure I can outrun him. So here goes: Georgia Tech plays No. 4 Virginia Tech Saturday night. It’s the Yellow Jackets’ biggest conference game since at least 1998 (against then No. 6 Florida State — a loss) and maybe since the national championship season of 1990 (against then No. 1 Virginia — a win).
Should they win, the remainder of their opponents are set up like bowling pins: Virginia (2-3), Vanderbilt (2-4), Wake Forest (4-2), Duke (3-3), Georgia (3-3). I’ll let you try to figure out which is the strongest of that bunch right now.
Johnson said this on Monday: “I think [players] are smart enough to know that if they look past this game, they’re going to get drilled.”
I say this: Win this game and Georgia Tech is on a path to at least a top-1o finish in the rankings, possibly higher. After this game, Tech will be past the difficult part of its schedule. The Jackets also have three things working for them that the school just down 316 doesn’t right now: a starting quarterback (Josh Nesbitt) who is making plays and improving by the week; an offensive line that is knocking people over; and a belief among players that they belong on the same field with everybody else (with snapshots of the scoreboard to back it up).
Defense is an issue. But it says something that the Jackets can go on the road and win at Florida State, when we sensed how much that game meant to the Seminoles’ players after they walked onto the field in locked arms with their embattled coach, Bobby Bowden. It says something that the Jackets were humiliated at Miami one week on national television but bounced back the following week to smack North Carolina. It says something that players are following their coach and their quarterback, because this is football and that’s where it always starts.
In the last three games, Nesbitt has not only rushed for 290 yards and five touchdowns, he has completed 22 of 33 passes for 486 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. What he has done is give an option team an unexpected option — the pass. What that does is enable an offense to overcome the shortcomings of a defense (as we witnessed in the 49-44 Chaos Bowl in Tallahassee). What that does is open the door to possibilities in the regular season, the bowls and the polls.
The first BCS rankings come out Sunday. Tech is ranked 19th by the Associated Press poll (which is not a part of the BCS formula but is influential with other voters), 20th in the coaches’ poll, 21st in the Harris poll and anywhere from 15th to 21st in computer rankings. Defeating the No. 4 Hokies would not make up for the loss at Miami. But it would put the Jackets in position to run the table and get back in the mix. The serious mix, not the Meineke Car Care Bowl mix.
Johnson has worked hard at keeping his players grounded. It started immediately following last season when he told them, “You haven’t done anything yet.” He repeated the message through the off-season. He has hammered them verbally even after wins.
Keeping them on an even keel now, he believes, won’t be an issue.
“You just have to approach this like another game,” he said. “Our guys understand it’s important. As far as the conference race goes, it’s probably a must-win game. But I don’t need to tell them that. They know. All that other stuff doesn’t matter.”
The other stuff, he’d rather not talk about. But it’s sitting there.