Johnson's Jackets Look to Break Through

(Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

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Special to theACC.com by Charlie Sallwasser, UniversityBall.org

Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech teams are consistently good. 

Since he took over in 2008, Georgia Tech has won between seven and 10 games every year, logging a .500 or better mark in ACC play and bowl appearances in each season and three appearances in the Dr Pepper ACC Championship Game. Unfortunately, merely being good doesn’t always satisfy the masses, and Johnson’s teams always find themselves facing legions of doubters, ranging from those who think he can’t win the big one (Tech is 1-5 in bowls under Johnson) to those who think the triple option belongs in a time capsule with CDs and JNCOs. 

To whit, this year’s group was pegged to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal (and a mere three votes ahead of sixth) by the voting media, didn’t receive a vote in the AP Top 25 until they were 4-0, and didn’t move into the top half of that poll until they took out ninth-ranked Georgia on Saturday. 

Now -- ranked 12th in the country and taking on Florida State for the ACC Championship -- the 2014 Yellow Jackets are poised to prove that they belong among the elite and provide a much-needed boost to Johnson’s reputation. 

Recent History:

Georgia Tech is making its third appearance in the ACC Championship Game. A 21-15 loss to Florida State in the 2012 Championship Game marked the Yellow Jackets’ last appearance, and the last time they’ve faced the Seminoles, from whom they’ve taken two of the last three meetings. 

A Look Under the Hood:

Tech’s 5-0 start included wins over Miami and Virginia Tech, and they recovered from midseason consecutive losses to Duke and North Carolina by winning four straight by no less than 22  points  and winning their season-ending grudge match with then ninth-ranked Georgia for the first time in six years. They run the ball a ton (79.1 percent of their plays and 333.8 yards per game -- a number that’s third in the country), and score points in bunches (37.2 per game) thanks to a plethora of big plays (an ACC-best 11 plays of 50-plus yards). 

More of those big plays than usual have come through the air -- GT’s opportunistic aerial attack, led by sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas (16 TDs, 50.3 percent completion rate, 9.1 yards per attempt) has accounted for more touchdowns (17) than any of Johnson’s prior teams. Seven of those 17 touchdowns (and 35 of their 91 catches) have gone to senior wide receiver DeAndre Smelter, who averages 20.4 yards per grab and excels at sneaking deep when the defense crowds the line of scrimmage. 

Those gaudy passing stats don’t mean that Georgia Tech has abandoned the run; in fact, they Yellow Jacket running more (79.1 percent of plays) than last season (77.8%), led by Thomas (861 yards, 5.2 per carry), Synjyn Days (597 yards in the five games since taking over as the primary back), Zach Laskey (who returned from injury to notch 140 yards and three TDs against UGA).

The Yellow Jackets’ ball-control offense is often their best defense. Foes averaged 5.1 yards per carry against them this season (last in the ACC) and 167.9 yards per game (10th), though the damage has been negated by Georgia Tech’s ability to get out in front early (they outscored opponents 110-85 in the first quarter, and 222-155 in the first half). Their pass defense is better -- they’ve picked off 17 passes, running five back for scores -- but it’s also leaky, as opponents have completed 62.1 percent of their passes for a passer rating of 125.2 (11th in the ACC). 

Harrison Butker has been shaky at times at kicker (11-18 on field goals), but made three of four against Clemson in his most recent outing. Jamal Golden is fourth in the ACC in kickoff return average (25.2 yards per return). 


How Does Georgia Tech beat FSU?

1.) Come away with turnovers (and touchdowns?)
The Jackets are third in the ACC in turnovers gained this season (27), and lead the league in turnover margin. Combine that with FSU’s penchant for miscues and add in Georgia Tech’s mission to turn every turnover forced into six points (they’ve run back six of them this season), and you have a recipe for success for Paul Johnson and co. FSU just turned the ball over four times against Florida, which allowed the Gators to hang around much longer than they should have. Stat to remember: Jameis Winston and Georgia Tech’s defense both have 17 interceptions this season, but it’s only good for one of them. 

2.) Put up big rushing and time of possession numbers.
The team that runs the ball 80 percent of the time needs to run to win? Good job, Captain Obvious!  But it goes beyond that. Georgia Tech leads the ACC in average time of possession (34:02 per game), and thrives on killing long stretches of clock with four and five yard gains. The Yellow Jackets need to control the ball in this game not only to score, but also to keep FSU’s offense off the field and unable to score themselves -- something they’ve had a problem with this season. 

3.) Go up big early.
At this point in the season, FSU probably has some confidence about its ability to come back from a double-digit deficit. If the Seminoles eventually lose, it could be because they go down big early to somebody too good to come back against… say, a team that thrives on killing long stretches of clock with four and five yard gains and averages 34:02 of possession per game. Anyone know of one of those?

4.) Convert Red Zone opportunities into touchdowns. 
Georgia Tech has been adept at scoring touchdowns once inside the opposing 20 (fifth-best in the ACC at 66.2 percent), but Florida State has been almost equally adept (opponents have converted just 47.3 percent) at preventing it. As the underdog, the Jackets can’t afford to rely on field goals; especially given Butker’s lack of dependability. 

5.) Win third down. 
Both of these teams (Georgia Tech: 57.4 percent FSU: 45.3 percent) are very good at converting third downs, and both (Georgia Tech opponents: 45.8 percent, FSU’s: 42.6 percent) struggle to stop them. 

What Does This Game Mean to Georgia Tech?
First and most immediately, the Yellow Jackets have the Orange Bowl in their sights with a win, which is the kind of high-profile game you want to be playing when the calendar flips. Secondly, an ACC Championship Game victory would be the kind of big win that both Johnson and Yellow Jacket fans have needed to validate the successes of the past few seasons, and Johnson needs for his resume.