USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
It's been two decades since Georgia Tech last finished with a losing record in Atlantic Coast Conference play. Two decades of good play – sometimes great play – and rarely awful play, if sometimes. Twenty years of good. Twenty years of fine.
Four wins against Georgia: 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2008. Seventeen bowl bids; six bowl wins. Five January bowl games, one of the Bowl Championship Series variety.
Twenty years, but just two losing seasons: 1996 and 2010. Eight seasons with seven wins. Two seasons with double-digit wins.
Twenty years and one outright ACC title, since vacated following an NCAA investigation. Two decades and three full-time coaches – O'Leary, Gailey, Johnson – who won and lost, doing a bit more of the former than the latter.
Give the Yellow Jackets credit for showing up for two decades. Florida State came, saw, conquered, slid, grabbed and conquered again. Georgia Tech stayed. Virginia Tech joined, owned, won, lost and lost. The Jackets remained.
Duke was terrible. Duke's now a contender. Georgia Tech's been one for 20 years. Miami (Fla.) went from bullies to punchline to bullies to punchline to average. Clemson went from pretender to frustrated contender to contender. Tech's been current Tech longer than you've had a driver's license.
Georgia Tech likes the status quo, and there's something to be said for constancy. If showing up is half the battle, Tech is perennially halfway there. What's wrong with that? Nothing, unless you want more.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
So here's where I stand: I think Tech wins seven or eight games in the regular season, likely eight, and that's a pretty nice accomplishment given this schedule. What's vital – and what would push Tech far higher in these rankings – is that the Jackets land meaningful wins, victories against premier competition, rather than feast on the weaklings.
In a nutshell: A strange season wholly missing the breakthrough some believed stood in the cards heading into the opener. It was also a tale of three seasons: one the strong start, topping Duke and UNC on the road to a 3-0 start; the second the ugly losing streak to Virginia Tech, Miami and Brigham Young; and the third summed up in the disappointment of losses to Clemson, Georgia – in overtime, no less – and Mississippi, the latter in the postseason. The Jackets won with some style, as in the 24-point win against the Blue Devils, but the Jackets always lost ugly. Capping it all off was January's scuttlebutt that Paul Johnson was looking for a way out, a fitting conclusion to a season that went contrary to all of Tech's preseason expectations.
High point: Beating Duke and UNC in September.
Low point: Losses to Clemson and Georgia. Losing to Clemson stinks; losing to the Bulldogs means you and your Athens-educated cousin don't talk at Christmas.
Tidbit: Georgia Tech ended last season ranked sixth nationally in rushing yards per game (299.31) and 11th in rushing yards allowed per game (115.77). Only two other teams finished in the top 11 in both categories: Ohio State, which finished fifth on offense and ninth on defense, and Wisconsin, which ranked eighth and fifth.
Tidbit (bowl edition): Tech's streak of 17 bowl appearances is tied with Georgia and Brigham Young for the third-longest active streak in the FBS, trailing Florida State (since 1982) and Virginia Tech (since 1993). The 17-year streak is also tied for the seventh-longest in FBS history, trailing FSU, Nebraska (35 years), Michigan (34), Alabama (25 years), Florida (21 years) and Virginia Tech.
Tidbit (weekend edition): Tech is 4-9 under Johnson in games played on days other than Saturday. In comparison, the Jackets are 44-22 under Johnson on Saturdays. Why is this important? Well, I can think of a few reasons … but here's one: Every single one of Tech's 12 games during this coming regular season fall on a Saturday. That hasn't happened since 1992.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Georgia Tech wins against Alabama
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: I remember watching one of the Jackets' practices last spring and hitting on a simple thought: "Why isn't," and then I paused, checking my program, "No. 5 playing every snap?" That'd be Justin Thomas, a ridiculously athletic sophomore who spent last season buried behind Vad Lee, the projected, can't-miss star who, well, missed – and mistakenly led Johnson to try out a different style on offense, to frustratingly ineffective results. Moving onward and upward go the Jackets, and Thomas is going to lead the charge. He's just an athlete, and I don't mean that as a negative: Thomas is a quarterback, yeah, but he's the sort of untapped athlete who could be just what this offense ordered. He has speed to burn; he has talent to spare; he's just gifted, basically, and it's exciting to consider what he can achieve at the controls of Johnson's attack.
Now, he's not exactly perfect when it comes to the option, but that's fine – Thomas is good enough at this point to get this offense back to its roots, and backup Tim Byerly, a former Middle Tennessee State transfer, is intelligent enough to assume some sort of secondary role within the system. I'm just excited about what the new guy can do: Thomas could be dynamic, explosive, productive and even consistent, if Johnson surrounds the sophomore with senior-type assistance and allows the Jackets to get back to basics. There will be bumps along the road – he is a first-time starter, after all – but Thomas is going to be good one. Be patient, be calm, and be excited.
The ground game will replace its top two rushers and not miss a beat, because that's what Tech does. Thomas is going to be supremely productive, far more so than Lee a season ago, and the Jackets can team his yardage with seniors Zach Laskey (485 yards), Deon Hill, Charles Perkins, Matt Connors, B.J. Bostic, Synjyn Davis and Tony Zenon. Yeah, it's a lot of seniors – and a few underclassmen, including Broderick Snoddy, Dennis Andrews, Myles Autry and others. What's the bottom line? Look for Tech to approach the 4,000-yard mark after a slight dip last fall, even if this projection does entail a solid season from a somewhat reworked offensive front. I suspect you can pencil Laskey in for 1,000 yards alone.
I've said this offense should try to get back to the grassroots, but it's funny: Tech is a little loaded at receiver. Both starters, sophomore Michael Summers (10 receptions for 211 yards) and senior DeAndre Smelter (21 for 345), are back in the fold; while those numbers could fall a touch, both are proven catchers in this system. The Jackets also return junior Darren Waller (17 receptions for 367 yards), a big-play threat who will rejoin the rotation after missing the first two games of the regular season. There's more depth – Corey Dennis and Antonio Messick, for example – but this quartet will lead the way. In total, Thomas will have the skill-position tools he needs to break into a starting role.
Defense: Changes are coming; don't be alarmed. One year after making some progress under coordinator Ted Roof, the Jackets will shift from the prototypical 4-3 to a more unorthodox 4-2-5, a scheme that allows the Jackets to add speed along the back seven to hang with spread-out ACC attacks – among other positives, but I see that as the biggest. This is all well and good: Tech is not comfortable with standing pat, though it'd be easy to do so after an adequate 2013 performance, and eventually the transition may pay dividends. But there's a problem with the change … Tech just doesn't have the horses on defense. All told, the defense doesn't seem to do anything remarkably well.
The new scheme won't shift responsibilities along the front four too significantly. That's good, but there are issues: Tech brings back only one line starter, junior tackle Adam Gotsis (38 tackles, 14.5 for loss), and lost a likely starter at end in Jabari Hunt-Days, who will miss this season due to academics. All hands on deck, folks. While Gotsis is a good one – he's very underrated in the ACC – Tech must land ample production from fellow tackles Pat Gamble, Francis Kallon and Shawn Green; Gamble looks like the starter, but I can't help but think Kallon is a hair away from reaching his immense potential. At end, Hunt-Days' departure might open up a starting role for promising freshman KeShun Freeman, though it's likely he ends up splitting snaps with sophomore Kenderius Whitehead. That pair – Freeman in particular – could cause some damage on the weak side, but don't look for Tyler Stargel and Roderick Rook-Chungong to light things up on the strong side. If he steps forward, Kallon could allow Tech to shift Gotsis outside to end.
So that's not great. Well, the line's the strongest portion of this defense. The two-member linebacker corps is questionable in part due to injuries – past injuries, I mean: Anthony Harrell could be a solid producer on the strong side, but I question if he's fully recovered from last season's ACL tear. If he's only prepared to contribute in a reserve role, Roof and the Jackets will hand the spot to sophomore Tyler Marcordes, yet another eye-catching young talent who may not have the experience to produce at an adequate clip – or if he does, may temper moments of brilliance with the fits and starts inherent to a first-time starter. Senior Quayshawn Nealy (66 tackles) and sophomore Paul Davis are steady options on the weak side, but the Jackets need more disruptiveness from the position.
How you feel about the secondary may depend on how you view that half-full – or half-empty, I guess – glass of water. Two starters are gone, led by a seemingly irreplaceable piece in safety Jemea Thomas, which isn't good. But we can say three starters return if we include nickel back Demond Smith (45 tackles), who steps in as the Jackets' fifth defensive back, and that's not too bad. It may be too early to make that leap: Tech has a number of options in the secondary, with the eventual makeup perhaps hinging on how comfortable the staff feels in handing a starting job at cornerback to one of two true freshmen, Step Durham and Lance Austin.
Let's say Durham starts by October. If so, I would expect sophomore Lynn Griffin (after a two-game suspension for a code of conduct violation) to replace Smith at nickel, where his ability to run in space would be an asset. That would in turn drop Smith into a reserve role, allowing Tech to use junior Chris Milton on the outside – so that single move does seem to add depth at cornerback, but can only be implemented if the Jackets trust those rookies. D.J. White is a locked-in starter at cornerback, so the secondary does have options. Tech's safeties are interesting: Jamal Golden and Isaiah Johnson are returning from injuries, with Golden patrolling the middle at free safety and Johnson a potential all-conference pick at strong safety. I think Johnson, if back to his old tricks, could be a menace in this system. But that both need to prove they've recovered some prior form is a bit of a concern.
Special teams: New special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski is a good one. He inherits a pretty solid group, particularly in sophomore kicker Harrison Buker improves upon his steady debut. At punter, look for Ryan Rodwell to step in as Sean Poole's replacement. An already solid return game is going to benefit enormously from Golden's return from injury; he was a machine on kickoffs in 2012.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: The line builds around senior right guard Shaquille Mason, a reigning first-team All-ACC pick and strong All-American contender. There are worse building blocks. But there are two large voids to fill, at center and left tackle, and Tech must also land improved play from returning starters at left guard and right tackle – Trey Braun and Bryan Chamberlain, respectively. The latter in particular needs to step up: Chamberlain must ramp up his game to join Mason in giving Tech a dominant strong side. Jay Finch's spot in the middle should fall to sophomore Freddie Burden, the post-spring starter, but I could envision a scenario where junior Thomas O'Reilly takes that job with a solid August. And then there's the blind side, and here's where Tech needs to devote its fall-camp resources. It's a bit unsettled: Chris Griffin has a great frame and nice potential, but he's only a redshirt freshman; junior Errin Joe has earned the staff's trust, but he needs to prove he can remain healthy; sophomore Nick Brigham is a third option, but he's very valuable as a swing reserve both inside and out. At best, this line rallies behind Mason and stands as, say, the fifth-best front in the ACC. At worst, the line falls well in the league's bottom half.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Virginia Tech: It's an early one – the Jackets' ACC opener – but it could be a tone-setter. A win there would head Georgia Tech out of September at 4-0, giving this team massive momentum heading into the heart of league play; with Miami, Duke and UNC looming, a loss could snowball. The schedule is defined by two stretches: one, that four-game period beginning with the Hokies, and two, the end-of-year stretch against Clemson and Georgia. It'd be really nice to beat the Bulldogs, guys.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: I'm not fully on board, not when Georgia Tech has such youth, inexperience and question marks on the defensive side of the ball. On paper, Tech's strongest unit looks like the front four; given the issues up front, this is indicative of the concerns dotting the entire defensive two-deep. The line is young and heavily reliant on underclassmen in key reserve roles – and even in starting roles, with three sophomore currently penciled into the lineup. These linebackers aren't special, though this scheme does at least partially negate the level's importance. The secondary could be fine, but think about three issues: one, that freshmen could be starting at cornerback; two, that both starting safeties must prove they're ready after missing all or most of last season; and three, the secondary is the most impacted by the shift in philosophy. The defense has much to prove.
And the defense could negate what I think will be a return to effectiveness on offense. I really think Thomas is going to get it done: Tech will need to make it easy, but the sophomore has the physical tools to succeed. He's also bolstered by a solid array of skill talent, with a loaded, senior-heavy backfield and the program's deepest receiver corps in several years. The line is a question mark, true, but it's not an overwhelming negative: Tech simply needs to solidify those open spots while locating one additional trustworthy reserve. The running game will click; the offense will click.
I'm still hesitant, which is new: I've been on board with Johnson from the start, so it's somewhat strange to question the Jackets' validity as an ACC contender. Then again, Tech is always an ACC contender; it's been 20 years since this program wasn't, as noted in the opening. My take is that this team seems unbalanced heading into fall camp – and not that this means it'll be a down season, merely that I have fewer reservations about the remaining members of the Coastal Division. The Jackets are clearly a bowl team and, as always, a threat to burst to the top of the division. It's safer to project seven wins and a spot outside the Coastal's top three.
Dream season: The Jackets get back to their old tricks, taking 10 games during the regular season and winning the Coastal Division. In the finale: Tech 48, Bulldogs 21.
Nightmare season: Tech fails to reach the postseason and falls below .500 in ACC play.
Who's No. 54? This program went 22 years before its first and last season with 10 or more wins.