An absurdly premature assessment of the 2011 Yellow Jackets.
• Previously On… The defending ACC champs got knocked to the mat in short order last September with an early flop against Kansas, and arguably never got its legs under it again: Only two of the Jackets' eventual six wins came over teams that ended the season in a bowl game, and those two were against Middle Tennessee State and attrition-ravaged North Carolina, still missing a third of its starting lineup early in the year. A season-ending injury to quarterback Josh Nesbitt accelerated a late skid into Tech's first losing record in 14 years.
• The Big Change. In Paul Johnson's system, it's always the smaller, quicker A-Backs who rack up gaudy per-carry averages on the edges, and there's no shortage of seasoned options there: Between them, Orwin Smith, Roddy Jones and Embry Peeples racked up more than 1,000 yards on a whopping 7.6 per carry last year, with nine touchdowns. That's typical. But it's the relentless stream of quarterback veers and fullback (or "B-Back") dives between the tackles that really makes Johnson's attack go — more than three-fourths of the carries last year were by players at those two positions, which, again, is typical — and the heart of the triple option was decimated by attrition: Nesbitt and center Sean Bedford were both three-year starters, and Anthony Allen exploited his one season at B-Back by churning out a conference-best 1,316 yards. All three picked up All-ACC credentials in their careers, Bedford twice.
Two things that aren't going to change: a) Johnson's going to call more running plays than any other coach in America, as he consistently has for the last decade at both Georgia Tech and Navy, and b) His quarterback is going to carry the lion's share of that load. The new workhorse, Tevin Washington, started the last four games in Nesbitt's place and showed a similar feel for the option as a sophomore, piling up 420 yards on the ground in those four starts alone.
|The Least You Should Know About...|
|•• In 2010|
|6-7 (4-4 ACC, T-3rd, Atlantic Division); Lost Independence Bowl.|
|•• Past Five Years|
|2006-10: 42-25 (28-14 ACC); 0-5 in bowl games.|
|•• Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*|
|2007-11: 18 • 49 • 49 • 43 • 41.|
|•• Best Player|
Guard Omoregie Uzzie was the highest-rated signee in Tech's 2008 recruiting class, and began to fulfill the projection last year with a second-team All-ACC nod as a first-year starter. Sean Bedford's departure at center makes Uzzie the anchor of the offensive line, and as essential as anyone to keeping the prolific running game on top of the charts.
|•• Best Year Ever|
|Any season that opens with rising star Marilyn Monroe posing in a school sweater for the cover of Look Magazine is automatically in the running, and the 1952 Yellow Jackets lived up to the hype with a 11-0 regular season run that secured their last outright SEC championship under the great Bobby Dodd. A 24-7 Sugar Bowl rout over sixth-ranked Ole Miss extended Tech's unbeaten streak to 26 games dating back to late 1950, but still couldn't get the Jackets past Michigan State at the top of either of the major polls.|
|•• Best Case|
|The option picks up where it left off; Stephen Hill emerges as a viable downfield receiving threat; defense rediscovers the pass rush and moves into the top half of the ACC rankings; 9-3, Chick-Fil-A Bowl, low end of top-25 polls.|
|•• Worst Case|
|Drives continue to stall in the absence of a legitimate passing game; front seven remains mediocre against the run; green secondary is torched by the pass. 5-7, no bowl, beginning of fan grumbling after back-to-back losing seasons.|
|* Based on Rivals' national rankings (top 50 only)|
But his ball-handling and decision-making were both shaky at times, and the machine-like rapport between Washington and the new guys on either end of his receiving the snap is going to take some time to develop. In the meantime, none of the candidates at B-Back inspires comparisons to Allen or his dynamic predecessor, Jonathan Dwyer, either.
• Big Men On Campus. Last year's Big Change came in the form of a 3-4 scheme imported from Virginia by new defensive coordinator Al Groh, which had no discernible effect, statistically; if you want to get technical about it, the numbers actually got a smidge worse in the transition, dropping the defense into the nether regions of the ACC rankings. The good news — well, depending on your perspective — is that all three defensive line starters and the two most productive linebackers, Julian Burnett (the team leader in total tackles) and Steven Sylvester (team leader in tackles for loss), all return, forming a quintet that's already logged 88 starts together over the last two years and could be in position for a breakthrough in their second go-round in Groh's scheme.
• Open Casting. On the other hand, the secondary is starting over from scratch: With cornerback Jerrard Tarrant's surprising decision to take his shot in the draft, the Jackets are left without a single returning starter in the back four — nor anyone who steps in with particularly inspiring credentials. There is some experience (senior Rashaad Reid started 13 games as an underclassman at both corner and safety) and some potential talent (second-year corners Louis Young and Ryan Ayers arrived last year as four-star recruits), but no relevant track record to speak of.
• Overly optimistic spring narrative. Paul Johnson's system never changes, and never falters: Going back to his days at Navy, his triple option attack has finished in the top 10 nationally in both rushing yards and yards per carry six years in a row, usually without particularly all-star personnel. Washington showed in limited time that he's perfectly in line with Johnson's productive tailback-as-quarterback tradition, and even a marginal step forward from the defense ought to have the Jackets back in the black by a comfortable margin.
• The Big Question: Will defenses have any reason whatsoever to respect the pass?
When you get right down to it, the ground game and defense as a whole were virtually identical from 2009 to 2010. As it turned out, the real difference between an ACC championship and Orange Bowl bid in the former season and leaving the Independence Bowl with a losing record in the latter was the presence (and subsequent absence) of Demaryius Thomas at wide receiver: With a legitimate deep threat at his disposal in '09, Nesbitt could make defenses pay for over-playing the option, and did with one of the most efficient seasons of any passer in the country. Thomas, a perennial mismatch in one-on-one situations, hauled in 46 balls for a ridiculous 25 yards per catch and left for the first round of the draft.
The leading receiver in 2010, Stephen Hill, caught 15 passes all season, and the Jackets' team efficiency rating between Nesbitt and Washington plummeted by nearly 50 points. Scoring plummeted by a full touchdown per game — and that was with the No. 1 rushing attack in America. No matter how many yards you rack up on the ground, the fact is you can't win consistently in modern football with an offense that only completes 38 percent of its passes.
That doesn't mean Tech should start throwing more — that's not going to happen as long as Johnson is calling the shots, and it doesn't need to happen — but until they find some way to make it count when they do, the ACC title is going to remain out of reach.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.