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A Somewhat Obligatory Assessment Of: Georgia Tech

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By popular demand...
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The least you should know about Georgia Tech... What's Changed: Just how bad was Reggie Ball? Let's go to the tape!
2006 Record
9-5 (7-2 ACC / 1st, Coastal)
Past Five Years
37-27 (24-17 ACC)
Returning Starters, Roughly
14 (6 Offense, 8 Defense)
Best Player
Philip Wheeler stands out immediately because he’s one of those ball-hawking, 4.4-running, velociraptor specimens, athletically, and then because he’s everywhere: he was second on the team last year in tackles (71), its best blitzer/run penetrator (14.5 for loss, 9 sacks) and batted down five passes for fun; he had four interceptions as a sophomore. I was a little shocked that his similarly productive linebacking mate KaMichael Hall wasn’t drafted in April (probably owing to his threatening Merten Hanks’ NFL record for neck length), but even if he’s considered one of those "overwhelmed at the point of attack" guys against the run, Wheeler is both a workout warrior and an on-field playmaker and strikes me as a first day lock. Not that I know anything.
Bizarre Tradition
They don’t do this anymore, apparently, but the Georgia Tech "shirt tail parade" is the kind of hokey old school exuberance that’s made for college football, and for college football alone, the only facet of life that could possibly consider, well, let this unidentified alumnus handle the details:

These days, the hooligans just go around wrecking antique cars. These kids today, they got no respect for nothing, I tell ya.

Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
You have to be a special kind of cantankerous bastard to go ahead beating a team that’s not even a real team 222-0, and so John Heisman was, apparently, when he forced poor Cumberland College to honor a contract despite not actually having a squad in 1916 – Cumberland disbanded its football team the year before, but wanted to avoid the $3,000 cancellation penalty badly enough that some dude and his frat brothers caught the train or rode their horses or whatever into Atlanta (probably drinking very heavily along the way), turned the ball over 15 times, allowed 440 yards and 18 touchdowns rushing, another 400-plus in return yards and a dozen defensive or special teams touchdowns, then went back to Tennessee the worst losers in organized sports history. Heisman thought Cumberland had paid ringers when it stomped his baseball team earlier in the year, but, really, man, is 126-0 at halftime not proving the point effectively enough?

Also: Georgia Tech was part of the most bizarre fight song rendition in history, a duet of "Ramblin’ Wreck" by premiers heads-of-state Nixon and Kruschev during a Cold War summit in Moscow. As always, Nixon is on his own personal plane of bizarre.

Passing vs. BCS Opponents, 2003-06
Reggie Ball Rest of ACC
Comp. % 48.2 56.3
Yds. Per Game 163.4 202.4
Scoring 22.6 22.9
TD:INT* 1 : 1 1 : .94
Win % .553 .483

Commence the wishing and the washing, the yin and the yang: the most time-consuming chart ever demonstrates that, eh, Reggie Ball was kinda bad. He was always erratic and, anecdotally, anyway - think of his comeback-killing picks in his last two games against Georgia - cost his team chances to win a few tight defensive trench battles. But on the whole, he was good enough to lead two wins over Auburn, two over Miami, another over Virginia Tech, a couple more against ranked teams from Maryland and Clemson and was consistent enough when the Jackets were supposed to win (10-2 the last two years as a favorite in ACC games) to stumble into the league championship. Where, yeah, he was 9 of 29 with two interceptions.

The point is, there is no point when it comes to Reggie Ball. He was who he was, an enigma, a snap-to-snap mystery; never more, never less. Maybe sometimes less. Never consistently anything enough to draw a bead on him, though. Simply by virtue of staying on the field and winning more games (29) than any untenably short, sub-fifty percent passer with his reputation had any right to win, he rises above the Joe Daileys of our world, the nightmare scenario guaranteed to bury his team under an avalanche of mistakes in an unprecedented number of losses. Ball didn't do that, most of the time. The worst four-year starter in modern college history? Probably. But usually a winner, despite it all, and you can never take that away from him. Well, unless you're the NCAA and it turns out he was ineligible or something. Then you could, actually. But probably they won't.

Go deep, young man.
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At any rate, Tech becomes likely the first team in history to lose an era-defining, division-winning quarterback and the second overall draft pick, the most dynamic playmaker in the country, from its offense and still feel generally optimistic about it, especially when that optimism is based mostly on a loss. The first half of Taylor Bennett's 326-yard, three-touchdown show in the Gator Bowl was like the skies parting over the bridge after the troll's been tossed in the river to bathe a big, strong-armed, pocket-bound knight in affirming light.  Bennett's output in that game, his second career start, was better than Ball's career high and would have been easily Tech's most satisfying offensive performance of the year if the defense hadn't been so thoroughly shredded on the other side. This only matters if the spirit is strong in new OC John Bond, out of forebodingly run-first systems at Northern Illinois and Army, and if more teams are stricken with the same delicious softness as West Virginia's secondary.

What's the Same: I'm not sure I've ever seen a game that better defines a defense at its best than Tech's season-opening win at Auburn in 2005, when Brandon Cox threw for 340 yards in his first start and still left a beaten, battered goat for throwing four interceptions in total bewilderment. Jon Tenuta's mad zone blitzin' does that to young quarterbacks; the Jackets sacked Cox three times in addition to the picks, sacked Kyle Wright seven times when they upset Miami later in `05, then opened up conference play last year with 17 sacks, collectively, in wins against Virginia, Virginia Tech, Maryland and Miami. Tech's turnover margin in those four games was +6, but more importantly, those teams combined to average about two yards per carry. That number a) is awful even accounting for the sacks, and b) contributed to Tenuta's lusty aggression by keeping teams off-schedule on third down. Evidence of that is here in handy chart form, and more circumstantially in the measly half-yard average Tech allowed on all third down runs, heavily influenced by all the negative yardage on sacks. New passers at Notre Dame, Maryland and Clemson aren't going to have a very nice time with this.

Corollary: offenses that succeed against the Jackets are the ones that can keep them on them heels with an effective running game. That's not revelatory, because it's true of all defenses, but it stands out here because so few teams are able to pound it on Tech like that; witness, though, the dominating 300-yard games by the multi-pronged misdirection attacks of Clemson and West Virginia, two teams that spectacularly broke the Tenuta Code with their track star backfields. Nobody else came close - Notre Dame was next best at 3.5 per carry but still only scored 14, and Tech's losses at the end of the year, Georgia and Wake Forest, are squarely on the offense (the defense gave up a single touchdown in two weeks, Matt Stafford's winning flip to Mohammed Massaquoi). This defense is already fast, experienced and robotically consistent year-to-year - the composite stats on scoring, rushing, passing and total defense haven't budged at any point since Tenuta's first year in 2002, all the way down to first downs allowed - and it can be elite if it solves those lapses.

Mr. Durability.
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The Quiet Man: The best argument against Bennett's emergence may be less his inexperience, or that of his receivers, than the overlooked presence of Tashard Choice behind him, which was as formidable last year as it was unsung. Once it became determined to give him the ball a few weeks into the season, Choice was the real focal point of the offense, and its savior from an even greater reliance on Ball: he averaged 25 carries over the the last 11 games and had 100 yards in all but one of them (the exception, the ugly blowout at Clemson, was more the result of reduced carries in pass-heavy comeback mode than ineffectiveness). He was a legit workhorse in the midseason wins over Maryland (26 carries), Miami (26 carries), NC State (34) and North Carolina (32) and in the close losses to Georgia (146 yards, a TD on 6.4 per carry) and West Virginia (169 on 6.3, 2 TD), and the only players in the country with more carries at the end of the year were Garrett Wolfe, Ray Rice, P.J. Hill and Mike Hart. Choice shares those better known names' tendency for consistentf pounding over big play flash - he could have never been more than Adrian Peterson's insurance policy at Oklahoma - but with four starting linemen back in front of him probably deserves almost the same degree of all-America attention (almost). From his experience with Wolfe, at least, Bond should know what to do his new bell cow.

Inquiring Minds: Why doesn't Tech wear those crisp, regal blue unis they broke out for the ACC championship more often? Those things were sweet.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: One of the measures of Ball's badness was that only two guys last year - Calvin Johnson and James Johnson - caught more than two-thrids of the passes, too many of them impossible lobs into traffic. The newe infusion of receivers, if they're lucky, won't have to do that, though Demariyus Thomas was drawing comparisons to Calvin Johnson out of high school because of his size, despite the relatively tepid competition for his skills (his other offers were Indiana, Duke and Louisville). Thomas didn't play at all last year, where Johnson was an instant revelation as a true freshman, but maybe the kid is a "late bloomer," if his much-hyped performance in the spring is any indication:

ATLANTA - Georgia Tech quarterback Taylor Bennett uses familiar phases like "freak of nature" and "big-play guy" to describe one of his wide receivers.

And yes, Bennett is aware Calvin Johnson is not coming back to the Yellow Jackets.
Bennett has found a Johnson-like target in redshirt freshman Demaryius Thomas in the early going of spring practice.
Thomas reminds Bennett, at least slightly, of Johnson. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he looks like Johnson in his uniform and helmet. And he has made several impressive catches in the opening days of Georgia Tech's spring practice.
"We have different types of receivers," coach Chan Gailey said. "We don't have a lot of depth there right now, but we've got some pretty good talent to work with."

More talent is on the way. Gailey's staff signed a pair of tall, athletic wide receivers in the Calvin Johnson mold in the recent recruiting class. He expects both to compete for time this fall.

Gailey is confident the group will thrive without Johnson.

"It'll be different, but I don't expect a falloff," Gailey said.

No one guy's going to take over Johnson's statistical impact, but the ongoing complaint that he too often disappeared from the scheme leaves room for the group as a whole to come out ahead if Bennett's brain is more consistently in sync with his arm than Ball's was (with his own arm, not Bennett's. Ball's arm that is, I mean, as opposed to...forget it). In terms of spectacular highlights and name recognition, the falloff is inevitable and dramatic, but it's not impossible to spread 76 catches across four or five guys who contributed none last year. Where it hurts is those times the offense has to have a play, and has no go-to belweather to lean on - but how many clutch catches did Johnson make, anyway? This is an anecdotal point, but since his breakout fourth quarter at Clemson in `04, I only remember Johnson in those situations dropping the winning touchdown against NC State as a sophomore and being blanketed by Georgia the last two years. He was MIA last year at the ends of the Notre Dame and ACC championship games. His damage seemed to come disproportionately early in games, and in that regard can theoretically be replaced. Theoretically.

Georgia Tech on YouTube: In record and in style, Chan Gailey is seen mainly as the stoic, bran muffin type, but those people are only talking about the exterior. Here, after winning in the Orange Bowl last October, we get a rare glimpse into Master Chan's more visceral side:

Where was that against Wake Forest?

See Also: You know how long ago 1990 was? Virginia was number one, and Scott Sisson was kicking for Georgia Tech to replace them ... Possibly the only YT clip completely dedicated to the performance of a punter ... And it's not Gregory Peck in The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit, but the Ramblin' Wreck goes Hollywood courtesy of The Gordonaires in 1947 - with lyrics cleaned up for the kids, natch.

Conventional Wisdom: The ACC is mixed up enough that ten of its twelve teams - eleven, if things go right for Butch Davis at North Carolina - could beat one another at any point without blinking, which makes for excitement but not much consensus or clout in the neverending conference wars. The possibly biased Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the first to tab Georgia Tech as the Coastal Division frontrunner after the spring, conveniently forgetting Virginia Tech, the critic's choice in every other case I'm aware of. The Jackets fall elsewhere as high as second in the division (Athlon, the only pub that thinks they're solid top 25 material, and Street and Smith's) and as low as fourth (Phil Steele, who smells a rising tide of desperation from Virginia). Specific postseason projections aren't great - the Champs Sports and Music City bowls are popular - but at least it's a foregone conclusion there will be a postseason for the eleventh year running, which ultimately won't be the case for three or four of those competitive teams.

If only they played in the shirts as good as they looked.
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Best-Case: In one sense, every game is winnable - per the rule of the ACC logjam, there's nobody on the schedule that seems completely out of reach. The end result of that kind of thinking, though, an undefeated season, that's kind of ridiculous at a place that hasn't lost fewer than five times in any of the last six years. Defensively, the status quo will be worth nine wins if the offense comes out firing on the level it did in Bennett's last start. Just don't ask which nine. Looked at another way, if Tech can split its four toughest games - to me, that's Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia, three of them at home - and win the rest, it could be 10-2 going back to the ACC championship. That's only one game better than last year's regular season.

Worst-Case: Notre Dame is so young and subsequently so ripe for being blitzed into oblivion in the opener, failure at the outset could be a season-long psyche out, because after Samford in week two, there's no breathing room whatsoever on the five-game conference run into mid-October. The baseline with Samford, Army and Duke is three wins. On top of that, using the same logic as above in a bizarro, pessimistic sense, Tech can split its four middle-tier ACC challenges - North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and Clemson - and be sitting home at 5-7 with its first losing record in the league since the early days of George O'Leary. This is up to Taylor Bennett, really.

Non-Binding Forecast: Always bet on tense, mistake-magnifying defensive bogs when Chan Gailey is involved, no matter the opponent, and a corresponding array of unpredictable victory and defeat in the micro that ends in the macro, predictably, somewhere in the middle. Gailey's first four teams, like George O'Leary's last, each won seven games and lost five or six; they were all 4-4 in the ACC. True to form, even last year's near-breakthrough team won four games decided by a touchdown or less (Maryland, Miami, NC State and North Carolina) and lost four games decided by a touchdown or less (Notre Dame, Georgia, Wake Forest and West Virginia). Live by the turnover, die by the turnover. I think this conservative seesaw goes beyond Reggie Ball into a systemic trend that has no compelling reason to end now - Bennett and the receivers are still noobs, aren't they, and far more likely to be frustrating and erratic amid occasional flashes than they're being given credit for. Where have we heard this before? Take the eight toughest games, all toss-ups, and split them right down the middle - again - and you get 8-4, probably 5-3 in-conference, and somewhere in the vicinity of the Champs Sports Bowl.

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* - Ball's TD-INT against BCS teams was 51:51. The rest of the ACC's was 546-499. Just so you know that I know.

Previous assessments, absurd, reasonable and otherwise:

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia May 31: Temple
June 1: Houston June 12: Wyoming June 14: Nebraska June 25: Florida International
June 27: Oregon State July 2: Michigan July 6: Washington July 9: Boise State