For long time Georgia Tech fans, we’ve all seen this picture before.
Fresh off a successful 2014 campaign that quieted many critics, the Jackets have opened the door for those same critics yet again in 2015.
But who can blame them for picking at the Wreck’s many glaring scabs? Losing in South Bend is a fate befallen by many over the past few decades. But losing in Durham, even to a no longer abysmal Blue Devil football program? It’s something Tech had only done once in twelve previous trips.
Now staring at the 2-2 (0-1) Jackets is a matchup with a UNC team they lost to a year ago, followed by reigning three-time ACC Champion FSU, with Clemson and uga lurking later on the schedule. Did I mention the latter three are all ranked in the top 10 of this week’s Coaches Poll?
Tech couldn’t handle business against a Notre Dame team without their starting QB, RB or TE nor could they topple a Duke club fresh off mustering only 10 points against Northwestern. Combine those two losses with the impending gauntlet and it’s not hard to visualize six loses by bowl season.
Top level programs simply don’t routinely have six or seven win seasons, especially not in the least competitive of the Power 5 conferences. And right now by the looks of it, Georgia Tech is not a top level program.
Chan Gailey’s time on the Flats was inseparable with mediocrity in big time college football. Seven win seasons were as familiar a sight as Tech Tower that soars above the West stands at Bobby Dodd.
But there has been that flirtation even post-2007, Gailey’s release. The Wreck averaged seven wins from 2010-2013, leading many to question Coach Johnson’s suitability as leader of the program. Was this crazy spread/triple option experiment just that? A barometer for Johnson to test the limits of competing in top level college football with an offense that hasn’t been widely used in four decades?
Here the thing, though. Georgia Tech’s option offense largely has been very good under Johnson. The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) developed by the smart guys at Football Outsiders is one of the most cited advanced college football metrics. You can read more about the offensive part of it here. I choose to use it because it adjusts for number of possessions and strength of opponents as opposed to points per game or yards per game as a measure of offensive production.
Here are the year-by-year OFFFEI results in terms of Tech’s rank in the FBS under CPJ:
Save for a disastrous 6-7 campaign in 2010 following the departure of Josh Nesbitt, Demaryius Thomas and Jonathan Dwyer and a 2013 season led by a disinterested Vad Lee, Tech has fielded a top 26 offense in every year.
What has been the laggard is the defensive and special teams performance, and Tech doesn’t deviate much from the rest of NCAA teams in those philosophies. Put simply, the spread/triple option offense is the phase that deserves the least amount of criticism.
Tech has been unable to string together two seasons of finishing in the AP Poll Top 25 play since Johnson was borrowing Chan Gailey’s recruits and ignoring that, not since 2000-01. And looks like that streak will be extended after a listless loss to Duke in Durham, NC.
The team only has themselves to blame after the many self-inflicted wounds they suffered this weekend, the least of which on a couple of special teams plays. But it was the offense, the same offense that finished 1st in the above FEI ratings in 2014, could only muster 20 points on Saturday. If we accept the defense and special teams will never be more than average to above average, then our offense must be spectacular week in and week out. And if it is not, then the last two games and early 2010’s are the result.
And herein lies the problem; one excellent season is a moment of achievement, but two is a trend. But Tech has yet to carry any good year momentum into the next, removing the possibility of the Jackets being a perennial power in the ACC, and certainly not nationally.
Tech came into the Duke game ranked 20th but won’t be ranked in next week’s AP and Coaches Polls and nor should they be the way they’ve played against Power 5 competition this year. Putting up video game numbers against overmatched opponents means next to nothing after the reality checks of the last two Saturdays. If Georgia Tech cannot find that same consistency they had a season ago, they will be doomed to a rollercoaster ride of mediocrity with the occasional blip of championship level competitiveness.
Now I’m not suggesting a change at the top in the slightest. Paul Johnson deserves more rope than his predecessor for his accomplishments, and Athletic Director Mike Bobinski is just now warming up his seat. Johnson just inked a contract extension through 2020 for his accolades in having two more double digit win seasons and two more victories over uga than Gailey. But it is still concerning to see a reversion to merely average performances in such a hurry.
A quick note about recruiting, the popular punching bag of the haves and have nots of college sports. There will always be ups and downs in every program when a strong class graduates; Tech saw it in 2010 as I mentioned above and they may be feeling it this year with the graduation of Smelter, Waller, Laskey, Days, Mason, Nealy, and others.
And while Paul Johnson has been vocal in his distaste of recruiting services like Rivals, you won’t find any of Tech’s recent classes in the top 35. Johnson and his assistants are all about fits, academically and athletically, not specific measurables in their recruiting approach.
However, Tech annually pits 3 star guys against 4 and 5 star guys from Clemson, Miami, uga and others. Maybe the supposed talent gap catches up to the Jackets from time to time. This year Tech is attempting to piece together the skill positions with numerous freshmen while facing one of the hardest football schedules in the nation. Maybe this quality of play should have been foreseen.
It all falls down on expectations of this program. Is the aim to win a certain amount of games? Beat uga? Win the Coastal? The ACC? Or is it to compete yearly for the newly minted College Football Playoff?
If the latter, Tech hasn’t realistically had a shot at a championship late in the season since 1998, joining 2014 as the only other year with a top ten AP Poll finish since the National Championship season of 1990. If the ACC or just the Coastal Division, then Tech has represented the Coastal in the ACC Championship Game four times since 2006, winning once.
Whatever you or the program define as success, it looks as though Tech has gotten off on the wrong foot already in this young season. Their CFB Playoff hopes have been dashed with two early losses. The Jackets are already down a game and a tiebreaker to possible Coastal frontrunner Duke, with big matchups against other frontrunners Virginia Tech and Miami ahead. And Tech won’t defeat the team from Athens playing anything like they did in Durham.
For now, it’s time to refocus and not fall in a mid-2000’s style lull. But questions will need to be asked should Tech revert to their 7-5 ways. I just hoped we were past that already.