The dynamics changed Monday morning. With Miami’s decision to exclude itself from postseason play, Georgia Tech claimed the ACC Coastal Division title. So now, for the first time, Tech and Georgia will meet with both having, to borrow Paul Johnson’s pithy phrase, bigger fish to fry. Win or lose Saturday, both will play for conference championships a week later.
But these two division titlists are not equal. The Jackets are 6-5, and the best they can do is to play in the Orange Bowl. (Not that the Orange Bowl, given that Tech just nosed above .500, would be a bad deal.) The Bulldogs are 10-1, and with two more victories they will play for the BCS crown. Georgia has much more to lose. The Jackets are 14-point road underdogs against an opponent they’ve beaten once since George Godsey ran through Jim Donnan’s crew of NFL-caliber defenders in 2000.
If these teams met 10 times, Georgia would win nine. But the Jackets have only to beat Georgia once to make their season and royally roil the Bulldogs’. Lest we forget, the signature victory of Johnson’s time at Tech came in Athens on a day in 2008 when his team wasn’t supposed to win.
That this game will be staged between the hallowed hedges might actually benefit the visitors. Under Johnson, the Jackets have played better against Georgia at Sanford Stadium than off North Avenue. The worst loss — well, at least until Middle Tennessee — of his Tech tenure was against Georgia at Bobby Dodd Stadium in 2009, when 10-1 Tech, which was bound for the ACC title game and ranked No. 7 in the land, lost 30-24 to the 6-5 Bulldogs. Last year’s meeting in Atlanta marked the only time Georgia has truly handled the Johnson-coached Jackets, winning 31-17.
Fun with numbers: Georgia has both the better offense (25th nationally to Tech’s 28th) and defense (20th to Tech’s 61st). But the Jackets’ rushing offense is the nation’s third-best, and the Bulldogs’ rushing defense is tepid (49th-best among 120 FBS schools). Twice in the past four meetings (in 2008 and in the frantic 2010 game, which Georgia won 42-34), Tech has rushed for more than 400 yards. And it must be noted that Georgia Southern, which is housed in a lower division, just rushed for 302 yards against these Bulldogs.
That said, it’s revealing that, under two defensive coordinators, Georgia has fared much better the second time around. Tech rushed for 409 yards against Willie Martinez’s defense in 2008; in 2009 the Jackets managed 205. Tech rushed for 411 yards against Todd Grantham’s D in 2010; in 2011 the Jackets managed 243. There are days when Johnson’s option-based spread can shred even a decent defense — North Carolina ranks in the upper half of the ACC in every major defensive category, and Tech stacked 588 yards and 68 points on the Tar Heels — but it’s hard to imagine that happening to a unit that has Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree and Jonathan Jenkins and Shawn Williams.
This Georgia defense hasn’t always played to capacity. Heck, it needed Williams’ pre-Florida “soft” declaration to boot itself into gear. Even so, Tech hasn’t faced a defense half this talented. The Bulldogs’ D would have to have a terrible day for the Tech O to have a great one. That could happen. But even if it did …
Tech would still have to stop Georgia, and there’s the mismatch. The Jackets are working under their second defensive coordinator of the season (first Al Groh, now Charles Kelly), and even Tech’s rise to the top of the Coastal hasn’t been paved with shutdown defending. Georgia has scored 37 or more points in eight of its 11 games, and Tech has yielded 40 or more points in five of its 11.
Tech’s best-case scenario: Its offense has that great day and bleeds the clock — this happened against Duke on Saturday; Tech had five 70-yard drives and hogged the ball for 38 minutes — and renders Aaron Murray a spectator, and Georgia’s offense gets antsy when it finally takes its turn and starts turning it over. It’s not unthinkable that Tech could forge an early lead, and in a game of such importance the pressure on a trailing favorite can be immense. Witness formerly No. 1 Kansas State, just beaten 52-24 by the 4-5 Baylor Bears.
But we can forget about Georgia looking beyond Tech to Alabama (presumably) in the Dome. Mark Richt’s history reflects that his Bulldogs have struggled to beat the Jackets only once — in 2005, when Tim Jennings intercepted a Reggie Ball pass with a minute left — in the four times they’ve been bound for the SEC title game. For all the talk about Richt’s too-even keel, he has his men primed for the state championship. Even in 2008, his one loss to Tech, Georgia led 28-12 at the half.
Yes, strange things can happen in rivalry games, but not often in this rivalry. In 16 tries, Tech has never beaten a Georgia team ranked in the Top 10.(The 1927 victory over the unbeaten Bulldogs predated the AP and UPI polls.) This wouldn’t seem to be the breakthrough. Expect the Jackets to play hard and well. Expect the Bulldogs to win 35-24.
Further reading: Heat Check – hot ‘Dogs face a warm swarm of Yellow Jackets.
Oh, and not to say I told you so: Pigskin’ pickin – Tech wins its division; Georgia takes the SEC.
By Mark Bradley