Georgia Tech’s last bowl victory came when Reggie Ball, then a sophomore, was the offensive MVP of the Champs Sports Bowl. The date was Dec. 21, 2004. So yes, it has been a while.
“We haven’t won a bowl game in, like, eight years,” said guard Omoregie Uzzi, overclubbing a bit.
Tech makes much of its run of consecutive bowl appearances, now at 15. What Tech, showing PR savvy, plays down is that about all the Jackets have done in many of those previous 14 bowls was appear. Tech has lost nine of the 14, and only one of the head coaches involved in the streak has managed a winning record. Interim Mac McWhorter won the 2001 Seattle Bowl, making him the Mr. December of recent Tech vintage. George O’Leary was 2-2, Chan Gailey 2-3, Jon Tenuta (another interim) 0-1. And Paul Johnson, the incumbent, has fared worst of all.
The back half of Tech’s current six-game skid falls on Johnson. “We’ve lost three in a row,” he said after being asked if his 0-for-Tech bowl record makes him feel a greater need this time. “But I’d want to win if we’d won three in a row … You want to win anytime you play, even if it’s at jackrocks.”
(For the uninitiated, “jackrocks” is apparently the North Carolina term for the kids’ game with the metal thingys and the rubber ball — the game some of us call “jacks.”)
The convenient explanation for Johnson’s bowl failures is that a defenses have a month to prepare for his stylized offense. Johnson, who dislikes many things, dislikes convenience above all. “People can say whatever they want,” he said Monday, speaking after Tech’s morning practice. “You can find stats to back up anything. I think my bowl record at Navy was 2-2.”
(For the uninitiated, when Johnson says, “I think,” he means, “I know darn well.” His bowl record at Navy? It was 2-2.)
This correspondent, you’ll be chagrined to learn, has a theory: Except for the BCS title game, where each side want to win with all its might, most other bowls hinge on who wants to be there more. It’s my belief that Tech lost to LSU in the 2008 Chick-fil-A Bowl in large measure because the Jackets had already won their Big Game by beating Georgia in Athens in Year 1 under Johnson. Something similar held true in January 2010, when Tech, coming off its rousing ACC title victory over Clemson, got outfought by Iowa in the Orange Bowl.
“We also ran into two pretty good teams those years,” Johnson said, and there’s no denying that LSU and Iowa are name-brand programs. But last season the Jackets lost to Air Force 14-7 in the Independence Bowl to finish 6-7.
Johnson: “Last year we should have won the game. That was very, very disappointing.”
The Air Force loss was another, I submit, symptom of motivational malaise. Nobody wants to go to Shreveport, but Air Force went knowing it could take down a team from a BCS league. The Jackets arrived knowing they’d be without Joshua Nesbitt, lost to a broken arm on a Thursday night when a still-in-flux Tech season was doomed.
This year, at least to these eyes, looks different. Tech won its first six, then lost four of its final six. Most Jacket backers would have taken an 8-4 regular season, but the way this 8-4 occurred left some uneasy. Said Uzzi: “We started off hot, but we didn’t finish so hot.”
If there’s an upside to a late-season fade, it’s that Tech should head to El Paso hungry. Uzzi again: “We’re trying to salvage the season, although ’salvage’ isn’t really the right word — I’m proud of what we’ve done. But this would put an exclamation point on it.”
Tech will face Utah, now part of the Pac-12, in the Sun Bowl on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. It was in the 2005 Emerald Bowl that the Utes, then members of the Mountain West, delivered the first of Tech’s ongoing string of bowl losses. Three seasons later, Utah beat Alabama (and Nick Saban) the Sugar. But don’t bother telling Johnson any of this. He can cite chapter and verse.
“Until Boise beat them [in last year's Poinsettia Bowl], they’d won nine [bowls] in a row,” he said. “I hope we want to be there — because the other side has a history of wanting to be there.”
By Mark Bradley