The thrill is gone: Georgia Tech braces for the doldrums of the Paul Johnson era

Part of ACC Week.

At the time, no one was quite certain what to expect when Georgia Tech plucked coach Paul Johnson and his niche offense out of Navy back in December 2007, but it was almost immediately clear that neither Johnson nor his triple-option attack had any need for a honeymoon period. In his first fall, the option ignited in November wins over Florida State, Miami and Georgia, snapping a seven-year skid against the Bulldogs and delivering the Yellow Jackets' best season in just as long. In Johnson's second season, Tech led the ACC in total and scoring offense en route to its first conference title in almost 20 years, matching the school record for wins in the process. Johnson was no genius or miracle worker, but he had quickly staked his claim as the best coach in the ACC, without much competition.

Which was brings us to The Big Question in Atlanta in 2011: Can honeymoon periods be, like, deferred?

Not that Johnson is on or facing any kind of "hot seat" after one down year, especially one that still ended with the Jackets in their 14th consecutive bowl game. But the afterglow of the 2009 championship season is certainly off, and not only because the NCAA now says the championship doesn't count. With a dismal, 14-7 loss to Air Force in the Independence Bowl last December, Tech dropped its fifth game in the last six and sealed its first losing record since the mid-nineties, as well as one of the most dramatic single-season regressions — from eleven wins to six — this side of Austin, Texas. Along the way, Tech dropped a game to Big 12 bottom dweller Kansas, and wound up beating exactly one team that finished the 2010 season above .500: North Carolina, which in mid-September was still reeling from a tidal wave of suspensions that decimated the starting lineup.

2010 wasn't exactly a "rebuilding" year — the Jackets opened in the top 20 of both major polls and were considered legitimate contenders to repeat as ACC champs. 2011, on the other hand, looks like a rebuilding year.{YSP:MORE} Three-year starter Josh Nesbitt is gone at quarterback after missing the last four games of his senior season; so is All-ACC running back Anthony Allen. The offensive line boasts fewer career starts (38) among its returning members than any other line in the conference. Scoring fell by a full touchdown per game from 2009 to 2010, and by all rights should be expected to dip again. The defense is replacing five of the top six tacklers. According to preseason guru Phil Steele's "Experience Ratings," the lineup as a whole will start the season as the greenest in the ACC and one of the greenest in the entire country.

The onset of probation and vacation of the 2009 title last week only depends the sense that Johnson's once-ascendant program has drifted off course. But it also makes for a pivotal point in his tenure: After disappointing with a team that looked like his best on paper, can Johnson steer the ship back on course with an outfit that looks like his worst? And what does it say about the Jackets' future course if they find themselves treading water in the bottom half of the conference for the second season in a row?

The good news for Tech fans is that Johnson has never endured two losing seasons in a row as a head coach — before last year, in fact, the only line on his resumé even resembling a losing season, period, over his previous 13 years was a 2-10 flop in 2002, the first year of a massive rebuilding job at Navy. From there, the Midshipmen went on to five straight bowl bids before Johnson was hired away. (The streak is now at eight under his old assistant, Ken Niumatalolo). With a team as yon as the Yellow Jackets will be this fall, there's a golden opportunity to get the new crew pointed toward big things in 2012 with a better-than-expected run in the meantime, a feat Johnson has managed in the past: The 2008 Tech team that finished 9-4 and set up the '09 ACC title run returned just nine starters from the mediocre 2007 outfit that got predecessor Chan "7 Wins or Bust" Gailey fired.

Of course, no one in the Tech locker room is thinking of the upcoming campaign as a kind of stepping stone to the next one, and certainly not as some kind of grace period or "honeymoon" after Johnson swept Jacket fans off their feet with his initial success. But however it shakes out, 2011 should tell us an awful lot about what this union is going to look like over the long haul.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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