(This appears in the AJC’s college football section on Sunday.)
(Click here to read Georgia’s game-by-game prediction and how they’ll finish 9-3.)
In Paul Johnson’s first two seasons at Georgia Tech, he went 20-7, won an ACC championship, beat Georgia, was named national coach of the year once, ACC coach of the year twice and probably even led some to think, “Wow, I guess that goofy offense can work in a BCS conference after all.”
Season 3 wasn’t a reality check. It was a 2-by-4.
“We definitely were walking on air going into last season,” wide receiver Tyler Melton said. “Not now.”
The Jackets went 6-7 in 2010. That punctured their ego. They saw the NCAA slap them with probation and strip them of the 2009 ACC title. That just made them angry. So they’ve gone from cocky and happy to humbled and bitter.
This is an important season for Johnson. He doesn’t need to win the ACC title to prove himself. But if he can get a young team with significant questions to compete, make things interesting in the conference and at the end wind up in a better bowl city than Shreveport, it will comfort the fan base on North Avenue.
Johnson says he likes this team in a way that suggests he wasn’t enamored of last season’s. “They get along, they have a great attitude and they work hard,” he said. “That’s really all a coach can ask for. We had good kids last year, too, but sometimes the chemistry just isn’t there.”
It was clear from the time the Jackets lost at Kansas in Game 2 — and the Jayhawks’ only two other wins came over New Mexico State and Colorado — that something was wrong. Leadership was an issue. So was arrogance. (And how strange does that sound for a Georgia Tech football team?)
“I think we might have had a sense that the Kansas game was a fluke,” running back Roddy Jones said. “We didn’t have enough of a sense of urgency after that game to propel us to more wins.”
Players pulled apart instead of coming together. Running back Embry Peeples suggested the leadership from the older players probably wasn’t as good as it needed to be.
“Some people would listen to certain people last year,” he said, not getting specific. “This year, the older guys speak positive things to the younger guys, as opposed to yelling at them, beating them up, telling them they stink.”
That happened last year?
“Yeah, there were comments. People talking each other down and stuff,” he said.
The running game, led by Jones and Peeples, won’t be an issue. But Johnson needs junior quarterback Tevin Washington’s ability to run the offense with limited mistakes. If the team can just cut back on turnovers — the Jackets’ 20 lost fumbles were tied for most in the nation — and improve the defense in Al Groh’s second season as coordinator, it will go a long way.
The ACC is not a wrecking ball of a conference. Things fall off significantly after Florida State and Virginia Tech. So while some project the Jackets to finish only fourth in the Coastal Division, an eight- or nine-win regular season is hardly a stretch.
Motivation certainly shouldn’t be an issue. There is the sting of last season. The NCAA’s punishment for Tech’s actions in a recent investigation. The low expectations.
“What people are saying about our entire team — we’re using all of that as motivation,” Jones said.
That pleases Johnson.
“Competitors want to win, and they realized how fragile that is last year,” he said. “You don’t just roll your helmet out. They got a good understanding of that.”
Nobody is walking on air anymore.
By Jeff Schultz