Every football coach enjoys a nice slight, real or imagined. (Slights are ready-made motivational tools, and every coach loves to have his work done for him.) Paul Johnson, as you’ve heard, is a little different. He doesn’t just welcome slights — he has built a career on them.
Consider his previous two seasons at Georgia Tech. The first was spent proving that his stylized offense could so work in the ACC. (”It’s not like it’s the NFC East,” Johnson famously said of his new conference.) The second was spent proving that his spread option could win a championship in a BCS league. And this year’s rallying cry?
Proving that 2009 wasn’t an aberration.
If you listen to Tech folks, you get the idea that these Jackets have been picked last in the ACC Coastal. That’s not true. They’re the consensus choice to finish in the Top 25 as the third-best team in college football’s toughest division. Tech finished last season 13th in USA Today’s coaches poll; it starts this season at No. 17. Big difference, huh?
But Tech folks don’t see that as a compliment. On the contrary. Said Joshua Nesbitt, the great quarterback: “People are looking for us not to be the same team … We need to prove everybody wrong.”
Does Johnson relay that message to his men? Nesbitt: “Only every time we talk.”
Much of this is understandable. Johnson has heard for decades that his offense is unsound, and he’s reveling in its success at a major school. But the issues most people have with Tech in 2010 aren’t related to tactics. The concern is talent. The Jackets lost four juniors early to the NFL. Ask Georgia if it hurt losing Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno with eligibility remaining.
The widespread belief among Tech fans is that the clever coach will simply scheme his way around everything. To be fair, there are days and nights when it seems Johnson can outflank anybody. But the Coastal looks wicked, and the Jackets must face two of the division’s three best teams on the road. To suggest that the Jackets mightn’t again go 11-3 isn’t so much a doubting of PJ as a nod toward reality.
Even Johnson has sounded a note of caution. “We could have a better football team and not win as many games,” he said, and five of those 11 victories last season — came by less than a touchdown. A rougher division, a harder schedule … a lesser season, right?
Not necessarily, according to PJ. He thinks this roster is deeper than last season’s, and he sees no reason why these Jackets can’t play for a championship. “If we stay healthy,” he said, “we’ll be OK.”
Understand: Johnson’s definition of OK isn’t 6-6 or even 8-4. He aims higher, and anyone who slots Tech lower is pigeonholed as a naysayer. “Who picks who — nobody knows who’s [going to win]. We control that. We play the game.”
That’s a feeling Johnson loves — control. People can say whatever they want about his offense and his program, but he’s the one with the headset standing on the sideline calling the plays. He’s the one going for it on fourth down. He’s the one willing to talk the talk and walk the walk.
And if these Jackets should manage — all together now — to Shock The World and Confound Their Critics and take another title, Johnson won’t just be walking. He’ll be strutting bigger and bolder than ever.
He’ll be able to say, “Remember when y’all were saying we wouldn’t be as good?” And then he’ll laugh. And then he’ll be off again, in search of the next slight.
This was a sneak peek of Sunday’s special AJC College Football Section, which will appear in the print AJC this weekend. The 34-page section will preview Tech, Georgia, Georgia State, the SEC and ACC, top games, Heisman candidates and more.