If, on Labor Day morning, you’d have known Georgia Tech would be facing USC in a bowl, you’d have guessed that everything would have broken right for the Jackets. As it happened, Tech had a rough season, which is why it’s again headed to El Paso and not, say, Miami. But spare a thought for the Trojans, who have been the greatest flop in almost half a century.
Ranked No. 1 in preseason, USC finished its regular season 7-5. Not since Ole Miss in 1964 has a preseason No. 1 wound up unranked, and back then the Associated Press poll included only 10 teams. Today it has 25, and you still won’t still find the Trojans until you sift through the “also receiving votes” category. They’re 12th on that not-exactly-stellar list — behind the likes of Vanderbilt, San Diego State and Arkansas State.
So there’s your Sun Bowl matchup: A team that has gone from No. 1 to No. 37 in the time it takes to say, “Lane Kiffin can’t coach a lick,” against a sub-.500 opponent. You wouldn’t think there’d be muchat stake, but again you’d be wrong.
USC has no reason to try hard on Dec. 31. Georgia Tech does. Not since Dec. 21, 2004, have the Jackets won a bowl, and that was so long ago that Chan Gailey was the coach and Reggie Ball, then a sophomore, was the game MVP and the team Tech beat (Syracuse) was so mortified by losing 51-17 that it fired coach Paul Pasqualoni eight days later.
Since then, nada. Tech has lost to opponents great (West Virginia, LSU and Iowa) and small (Utah twice, Fresno State, Air Force). That seven-year skid strips the luster from the Jackets’ string of 16 consecutive bowl appearances, and the past four losses have come under Paul Johnson. On the list of bowl-winning Tech coaches, Johnson ranks behind Mac McWhorter, who led the Jackets to victory in the 2001 Seattle Bowl as a one-game fill-in for George O’Leary.
This can’t-win-a-bowl thing has rankled Johnson for a while, and it has also gotten to his players: Tech’s seniors made “Win a bowl” one of their preseason goals. As of Halloween, there was no guarantee the Jackets would qualify for one. But they beat Duke on Nov. 17 become bowl-eligible, and then they lost to Florida State in the ACC title game to dip to 6-7, requiring an NCAA waiver to book passage to El Paso. But they got it, and off they’re going.
Of the Trojans, Johnson said Wednesday: “They were ranked No. 1; they had the Heisman frontrunner (quarterback Matt Barkley), and they’ve got the Biletnikoff winner (receiver Marqise Lee). They’re a talented team. Like I told somebody else, we’ve had a pretty good trifecta.”
Well, yes. Tech just played Georgia and Florida State, two gifted aggregations, losing to the former badly and the latter honorably. Can’t say the Jackets aren’t used to playing NFL-ready opposition.
“They’re very talented, but we’re not scared of them,” cornerback Louis Young said. “They’re 7-5. They’ve showed they can be beaten.”
They have, repeatedly. There’s a chance the Trojans, who figured to be spending the holidays in more scenic places, will sleepwalk through the Sun, and there’s no chance the Jackets will. This hasn’t been the season they envisioned, but tying Miami and North Carolina for first in the Coastal Division and playing for the conference title helped ease the pain. Beating USC in a bowl would be a nice New Year’s tonic.
On talent, the Trojans should win easily. But on talent, the Trojans shouldn’t be 7-5. For the first time under Johnson, Tech enters its bowl with more to prove than its opponent, and sometimes the lesser bowls come down to who plays harder.
There’s also this: Monte Kiffin, father of the lamentable Lane, has announced his resignation as USC’s defensive coordinator, for good reason. The Trojans rank 63rd nationally in total defense — that’s 10 spots below Tech, which fired coordinator Al Groh at midseason — and were overrun by Oregon on Nov. 3. The Ducks managed 62 points and 426 rushing yards, including 321 by Kenjon Barner.
If Tech can do nothing else, it can run the ball. It’s doubtful that the Jackets’ defense will shut down Barkley and Lee, but if the Tech offense can score early and control the clock, this could be one of those scoring lollapaloozas Tech occasionally wins. (To wit: Tech 68, North Carolina 50.) It would be utterly in keeping with this bizarre year if it ended with the Jackets breaking their bowl drought and finishing 7-7 by beating a team that was supposed to be unbeatable.
By Mark Bradley