Football: Georgia Tech May Not Have Yet Hit Rock Bottom


You will only know where rock bottom is once you’ve begun your ascent.

Georgia Tech came into this season riding high off an 11 win campaign that included wins against all major rivals and an Orange Bowl Trophy. While there was some serious attrition with three seniors being drafted in the 2015 NFL Draft and another four getting looks from professional teams, it seemed like Paul Johnson was finally settling in with classes of purely his recruits.

Coach Johnson’s only two nine-win seasons before 2014 came in 2008 and 2009 with a roster of players recruited by his predecessor, leading many to believe Tech wouldn’t be able to bring in enough talent to be nationally relevant in a spread/triple option offense. Well, in 2014 it all came together for the Jackets, who posted one of the most explosive and efficient offensive numbers in recent college football history.

There were some warning signs, however, as the offense lost almost all the notable skill position players over the summer. In addition, despite bringing back eight starters, Georgia Tech’s defense and special teams last year was only average at best and would have to take a significant leap to neutralize the inevitable offensive regression.

Each of those fears have manifested themselves during the first three games against Power 5 opponents.

Defensively, the Jackets weren’t a great bunch in 2014 but made plays when they needed to make them. Georgia Tech was just 79th in the FBS in total defense last year, giving up 411.3 yards per game. The defense was able to finish a more respectable 52nd in points conceded per game (25.7) by being +11 in turnover margin last season, 14th best in the FBS.

This year, Tech is actually holding opponents to 334 yards per games, although in the three Power 5 matchups, that number balloons to 383. The two big numbers, however, are the 23.6 points conceded per game overall but 34 points in the last three games against comparable competition.

Those 34 points would have moved the Tech defense from 52nd to 110th last year (I use last year’s rankings to account for early season variation in 2015). What is the cause of this? The yardage given up has gone down and Tech is actually forcing the same number of turnovers per game as last year, even removing the two games against Alcorn State and Tulane (10 totals takeaways, 5 in the last three games or 1.67 per game).

Special teams returns is a big source. Against Duke, Tech gave up a 100 yard kick return for a TD, which doesn’t show in the box score yardage stats. Also in that game was a snap that went over punter Ryan Rodwell’s head. He was able to pick it up and toss it for an incomplete pass, but it essentially functioned as a turnover on downs as opposed to Tech gaining 40 or so yards in field position. The story continued next week against North Carolina. This time, a low snap caused Rodwell to lose the ball momentarily. He was somehow able to get a punt off with a defender on his back but it only went 23 yards.

The special teams gaffs are reflected in advanced stats as well, such as these put together by SBNation’s Bill Connelly. Georgia Tech is 7th in offensive field position, starting on average at the Tech 34.8 yard line. Conversely, Tech is 109th in defensive field position, allowing opponents to start at their own 32.3 yard line. Both stat lines are skewed by the two early opponents of course, but that 109th figure is bad any way you slice it.

Offensively, it’s not hard to understand what has gone wrong. The blocking has been extremely poor, both from the line but also the backs and receivers. Frankly, there’s no reason for the offensive line to play this badly given the experience at that position, including three seniors and a returning starter at center in Freddie Burden. Tech is 83rd in the FBS in sack rate at 5.6% of dropbacks. Justin Thomas has seen pressure in his face during comeback bids in each of the last three games. Still, given the amount of talent up front, one has to figure the offensive line will get it turned around soon enough.

The backs and receivers situation is a bit more understandable, although less promising. The top two A-backs are injured, entire B-back core is new and the wide receivers are all very green after an injury to the only big minute upperclassman, Michael Summers. Justin Thomas is only completing 45.6 percent of his passes and the rushing offense has only averaged 5.7, 4.6, and 4.4 yards per carry for each of the last three games. That’s a pretty far cry from the 6.1 figure across all games last year.

It only gets more difficult from here. Tech has to face #6 Clemson in Death Valley with a chance to fall to 2-4. The road to 6 wins from there to avoid snapping an impressive bowl appearance streak becomes a major uphill climb.

To turn the team around and avoid a lower descent, Tech needs to first get healthy and then get execute in all three phases. No more big returns given up on special teams. Open holes to run through in the offensive game. Seal blocks on the outside to allot the backs space along the sidelines. If the team cannot do those things, there will be big questions to answer in the off-season when Tech is sitting out bowl season.

We will only know when we escape from rock bottom in hindsight. But for now, the stats and the upcoming schedule bare out a story that says rock bottom still exists lower.