During the course of a five-minute interview, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson referenced Georgia’s No. 3 ranking in the BCS three times, just on the chance that we didn’t know.
“It’s not often you get a chance to play the No. 3-ranked team in the country,” he said.
“We haven’t beaten them in three years — that should be motivation enough. And they’re the No. 3-ranked team in the country,” he said.
“It’s an important game — and we also know that it’s the No. 3 team in the country,” he said.
So, just for clarification, Georgia is ranked No. 3 in the country, correct?
“I think so,” Johnson said, smiling. “That’s what somebody told me.”
Welcome to the view from the other side. Johnson is perceived as the other coach of the other team in the other conference. On Saturday, his Yellow Jackets will face the Bulldogs in their annual feud in Athens. Johnson understands the backdrop. Georgia has a bigger fan base, commands more national and local media attention and plays in the Goliath of the conferences, the SEC. So there’s no reason to pretend the situation doesn’t exist. It’s better to go with it publicly and throw roses in the air, but behind the scenes remind his players that this is a chance to stick it to the world outside of North Avenue.
When Johnson gives his pregame Gipper speech to his players, he’ll touch on all of the expected themes for an ignored underdog. Linebacker Brandon Watts speculated, “I’m sure it’ll be how we have a chance to beat the No. 3 team in the nation, and we have a chance to kill their dreams.”
Tech has a chance. Rivalry games often give way to unexpected results. With so much attention in Athens being paid to next week’s SEC Championship game against Alabama and the potential of a berth in the BCS title game, it would be surprising if some UGA players weren’t distracted this week.
But this game is about more than that for Tech. When Johnson took over for Chan Gailey in 2008, it was like he plugged the program into a light socket. He won 20 games in his first two seasons, including an ACC title (later vacated). He led the team into Sanford Stadium in his first season and engineered a 45-42 upset. It was pure joy for players and everybody connected to Tech.
“I was watching it on TV,” said Jackets defensive back Jemea Thomas, then in high school. “They looked so excited when they were winning. They were running around with pieces of hedges in their mouth.”
The Jackets’ program is in need of a similar boost.
This has been a rocky season, notwithstanding their impending happy-birthday-berth in the ACC Championship game (resulting from Miami withdrawing in hopes of minimizing coming NCAA sanctions). Tech’s season has seen ugly non-conference losses to Middle Tennessee State and BYU, defensive collapses against Virginia Tech, Miami and Clemson, a fired defensive coordinator (Al Groh). The recent departure of athletic director Dan Radakovich to another ACC school (Clemson) cast the financial situation of the institute’s athletic department in a negative light.
For many, if not most, Tech fans, it doesn’t feel like 2008 or 2009. It doesn’t feel like a division-championship season — it feels like 6-5. In the stands, it looks like 6-5. The Jackets regularly played before thousands of empty seats at home games. The school also could not sell out its allotment of 8,000 tickets for Saturday’s game. Tech, in fact, returned more tickets (1,900) than Georgia Southern (1,400). (A contributing factor: Tech sold the UGA game tickets only as part of a season-ticket package. Nonetheless, it didn’t look good.)
A win over Georgia would improve perceptions, ease concerns. Johnson isn’t thinking about that. Coaches are wired to just try to win games and assume that will fix everything else.
When asked if he believed Tech fans seemed as excited about the program as in 2008, Johnson replied: “Probably not. But do you think any fans are as excited after the coach has been there for a while?”
Point taken. Mark Richt wasn’t feeling excitement in Athens two years ago, but things have turned. Tech needs a similar turn.
By Jeff Schultz
Post-Thanksgiving blog blowout sale