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PHOTO: Justin Thomas
Credit: Liz Condo - USA TODAY Sports
Special to theACC.com by Jacob Dennis (@jakeyd_8)
Semifinalist in the ACCDN Guest Reporter Search
Justin Thomas was never supposed to be under center for Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets, and he was certainly never supposed to earn the right to lead Georgia Tech in the ACC Title game against college football’s only undefeated team.
Thomas committed to Alabama out of high school as the No. 19 all-purpose athlete in the nation. His game-changing 4.3 speed was supposed to make its way to Tuscaloosa to keep the Tide’s dynasty rolling. But when Nick Saban signed another quarterback in his 2012 recruiting class and expressed his desire for Thomas to play on the defensive side of the ball in Alabama’s secondary, all bets were off. The speedy field general flipped his commitment to play on The Flats at Georgia Tech and almost three years later that decision is starting to make its impact on the college football world.
Johnson and Thomas are, in a way, a match made in heaven. Both men go about their business with chips on their shoulders, and both men feel they have something to prove.For Johnson, running the spread option in the ACC against big time opponents was never supposed to work. And when it did work early in his tenure skeptics claimed it was only because most teams had never seen it before. That “high school” offense was never going to work again. And for a while—about four years to be exact—the critics appeared right. Georgia Tech muddled its way to a 28-25 record from 2010-2013 running the option, and it seemed as if Tech’s 2009 ACC Championship-winning season was a one-hit wonder for Johnson. Some even proclaimed the Jackets’ head man to be on the hot seat heading into the 2014 season.
For Thomas, a state title-winning quarterback from Prattville, Alabama, his size just wasn’t supposed to be compatible with big-time college football. Five-foot-11, 189 pounds is a little small for a college athlete, especially a quarterback. He has electric speed, but his apparently-suspect throwing ability paired with his size would probably make it impossible for him to be an effective quarterback in the ACC, according to the doubters.
And so 2014 rolled around, and if the critics were correct, Johnson’s offense was headed out the door, and Thomas’ shot at playing quarterback at the highest level of college football was headed out with him.
But then something unexpected happened, at least in the eyes of those who didn’t think Johnson or his offense stood a chance.
Georgia Tech started winning.
The 2014 season started out a little slow for Johnson, Thomas and company, as the Jackets turned in a lackluster performance in a 38-19 win over Wofford, followed two weeks later by a second half collapse against Georgia Southern that almost resulted in a Tech loss.
But then the Jackets offense started to heat up, and with it came the emergence of Justin Thomas. Now at the beginning of December, the ACC Coastal champs sit at 10-2, coming off of a road victory against bitter in-state rival UGA, and the “Who has been better in 2014: Jameis Winston or Justin Thomas?” debate has emerged, a discussion that seemed a far cry away just a few short months ago.
For the football fan that hasn’t watched Georgia Tech play this season, describing just how good Thomas has been is hard to put into words. After just 12 games, the redshirt sophomore is already fifth on Georgia Tech’s career rushing list for quarterbacks, and third in single-season rushing yards by a QB. The Jackets have the nation’s third-ranked rushing offense, as well as a top-15 scoring attack. In the OFEI rankings, a measure of opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency, Georgia Tech ranks first in the country, well above Auburn and Oregon at numbers two and three. And Thomas, the QB that was once “too small” to throw the ball at the highest level, boasts a 154.3 quarterback rating to go along with 16 touchdown passes and just four interceptions.
Just 12 games into his career as a starting quarterback, Thomas seems to be winning over believers in not only himself, but also in Johnson’s offense. The Jackets haven’t won the conference, at least not yet, and they haven’t consistently been in the discussion for the College Football Playoff, but there is one statement that even the most adamant of Tech nonbelievers must agree with: Justin Thomas is, by far, the best quarterback that Paul Johnson has had.
From his electric speed to the split-second decision-making skills that an option quarterback must possess, Thomas owns all of the necessary traits needed to thrive in Johnson’s offense. And the best part for Georgia Tech is that he’s only a sophomore.
Johnson’s “hot seat” rumblings have turned into talks of a contract extension, and Thomas is starting to be discussed as one of college football’s elite quarterbacks. But, as always, the doubters are still prevalent.
And so, the Ramblin’ Wreck, accompanied by the ever-present skepticism that they’re even worthy of playing in the ACC Championship game, come rolling into Charlotte. Paul Johnson and company will play an underdog role they’ve grown accustomed to playing many times this season, as Florida State is considered the favorite in Saturday night’s contest. But the Jackets were picked to finish fifth in their own division before the season started, and yet here they are, fresh off of a season-defining victory in Athens that earned Tech its second five-game winning streak of the season.
Saturday’s contest is Florida State’s last roadblock to capping off a second consecutive undefeated regular season. A win over the Jackets would push the Noles winning streak to 29 games, a mark matched over the decades by just a few of college football’s juggernauts. But Johnson and the 2014 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have had a knack for winning games that they aren’t supposed to, and Tech surely has the appetite for doing so one more time. As Yellow Jacket faithful see it, it couldn’t possibly be more fitting for Florida State’s streak to end on the field at Bank of America Stadium at the hands of Georgia Tech, the exact spot and opponent that began the Seminoles’ impressive run just two short years ago. It would certainly be a storybook ending for Georgia Tech.