2011 W-L: 8-5 (5-3)
Head Coach: Paul Johnson (33-19; four seasons)
Returning Starters: 13 (7 Offense, 6 Defense)
Through six games, the 2011 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets were an absolutely terrifying opponent. They won their first six, mostly in resounding fashion, and climbed all the way up to the number-13 ranking in the country. They throttled Kansas so badly that they even made a t-shirt just to commemorate the occasion. But by their fifth win to start the year, you knew something was up. On October 1, they only beat a then-mediocre NC State team by 10. The next week, they battled a terrible Maryland team to a 21-16 victory — a crime for a team that had come into that contest averaging about 48 points per game. And we’re all pretty familiar with what came next. Bye weeks started giving teams ample time to prepare for the triple-option, and Tech started losing. After starting so hot, they’d drop five of their final seven and that hot start and the t-shirts were just a distant memory.
On offense, everything for Paul Johnson’s team is simple: just run the triple-option. Every play. With little variation. Oh, they had a star receiver in Stephen Hill, but unfortunately, they rarely threw to him — which ended up becoming the team’s biggest issue. When looking back at Paul Johnson’s most successful Tech teams (specifically the ’09 ACC Championship squad), you see teams that are lethal running the ball, while competent passing when called upon. That element of surprise keeps defenses off-balance and it’s how the triple-option works most effectively. Unfortunately, that’s not how current starter Tevin Washington runs the triple-option.
For Washington, who is now entering his senior season, passing has just never come all that naturally, and the team’s paid the price for how one-dimensional they can become as a result. If you take a look at Washington’s stat line from 2011, you’ll see eight games in which he threw for 100 yards or more. The ‘Wreck won seven of those eight, with the lone defeat coming against Utah in the Sun Bowl (look at that game’s stat line to see the play-call shift in the second half, however). Taking a look at it from that angle, it’s obvious what caused the team’s woes last year: they failed to pass the ball effectively and as a result, became a one-dimensional team. There was no preparing for the triple-option. Just the knowledge that it would occur on at least 85 percent of all offensive snaps, and the willingness to roll the dice on the other 15 percent (up-the-gut handoffs and deep routes to Hill). While our own Glynn McGehee has gone further into Washington’s issues and how his backups may give him a run, it’s generally understood that the quarterback will finish the season as the starter unless the bottom drops out.
On the defensive end, Georgia Tech must work to correct some issues with a unit that struggled mightily last year, even against inferior opponents. Beyond allowing 26.1 points per game, the Yellow Jackets were abused in the running game (161 yards against per game) and finished near the bottom of the ACC in sacks and opponent conversion rate on both third and fourth down, respectively. A key to correcting these issues this year is just more consistent pressure on the quarterback. While they only generated 22 sacks in 13 games, they also managed 14 picks. By getting more creative with blitz schemes, they can put their veteran defensive group into better position to turn the tide of games with turnovers, and take some pressure off the offense.
The 2012 season doesn’t give Georgia Tech or Washington much time to take it easy, as they open with Virginia Tech on Labor Day. Fair or not, the team’s ability to compete in this one could set the tone for the rest of the year, and also plays a huge part in deciding who represents the Coastal division in the ACC Championship Game. While it’s surely a gamble, there’s a shot that Paul Johnson tries to give the Hokies’ defense a variety of looks by plugging in reserve QBs Synjyn Days and Vad Lee at various points. Again, a big opening game against a conference rival probably isn’t your first choice for offensive experimentation. But if you don’t give it a try then, when will you?
With the quarterback situation being what it is, it’s a good thing Tech’s also set with two skilled running backs to lighten the load. A-back Orwin Smith and B-back David Sims have both returned for 2012, giving the team at least one area they don’t have to worry about. Last year, the veterans combined for over 1,300 yards and 18 touchdowns. Should their workloads increase (they had less than 200 carries between them), the Georgia Tech backfield could be even more dynamic than initially projected. Paired with a defense also filled with veteran talent, there’s a good chance that the Yellow Jackets team we see throughout this coming year more closely resembles the first-half juggernaut, rather than the second-half stragglers of 2011.
Prediction: (9-3) (6-2); Belk Bowl in Charlotte