I had this conversation with a Georgia Tech booster last night: If Paul Johnson had to pick between beating Georgia and winning the 2009 ACC title, which would have chosen?
“As fans, we’d always pick beating Georgia,” the booster said. But that’s from the fan’s perspective, which isn’t the same as a coach’s. And if I had to guess — and I don’t have to guess, but just for grins I will — I’d say PJ would take being the champion of a BCS conference. (Yeah, yeah. Even if it is only the ACC.)
I base this on something PJ said last week about beating Georgia — “Been there, done that” — and on his stated desire to win championships at Tech. “We almost did it last year,” he said, and the Jackets did. They shared first place in the Coastal Division but lost to Virginia Tech on a tiebreaker. And now the moment is here. Beat Clemson in Tampa and the Jackets will play in the Orange Bowl in Year 2 under Paul Johnson. And that’s pretty darn impressive even if they did lose to the hated mutts.
A year ago, I think PJ would have chosen the other course: He needed to beat Georgia to establish credibility among his constituency. And that had to come first lest he run the risk of turning into Chan Gailey. (Who was fired because he couldn’t beat Georgia, fired 51 weeks after he played for the ACC title in Jacksonville.) Having done the deed in Year 1, Johnson has more global goals.
Which is why, I submit, he talked down the rivalry last week. (Indeed, he came tantalizingly close to channeling Reggie Ball and saying of Georgia: “It’s just a game, dog.”) PJ said this flat-out: “I’m going to get Georgia Tech to the point where our program is bigger than one game.”
Georgia fans will crow that the ACC title game now holds no currency, but that’s not true. (The Tech fan’s comeback: “So who are you playing this week?”) Tech was the best team in its conference, which isn’t to be confused with the SEC but isn’t the New York-Penn League, either. And that was the Jackets’ stated goal from spring practice on — win the ACC.
Remember Tech’s rings from last season? They weren’t presented for beating Georgia, although they did bear the famous score. (I’m pretty sure this year’s rings won’t be engraved with “30-24.”) The rings were for tying for the Coastal title. This year GT and PJ don’t have to share a division with anyone. This year they can win the whole conference. And I’m thinking, in this coach’s mind, that was Job 1 all along.