Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas (5) tries to escape from N.C. State linebacker Airius Moore (58) at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, Nov. 8, 2014. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com
Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas (5) tries to escape from N.C. State linebacker Airius Moore (58) at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, Nov. 8, 2014. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Football

Thomas gives Georgia Tech a chance to win the Coastal again

July 24, 2015 01:17 PM

Paul Johnson does not suffer fools, kindly or otherwise.

The Georgia Tech coach spends much of his time with the media oscillating from indifferent to pedantic. That Johnson has won the ACC’s Coastal Division three times in seven years, without ever being picked to do so by the media, does seem to bring him a slight amount of satisfaction.

“You know how I feel about those things,” Johnson said at the ACC Kickoff in Pinehurst when told the Yellow Jackets were picked by the media to win the division this year. “I hope they finally got it right for once.”

The media missed on Georgia Tech last year. The Jackets were picked to finish fifth, out of seven division teams. Instead, they went 6-2 in the league (with losses to Duke and North Carolina) and ended the season with wins over two ranked SEC opponents (Georgia and Mississippi State).

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Over the past four years, only FSU (28) and Clemson (26) have won more ACC games than Georgia Tech (21).

In between the big SEC wins was a two-point loss in the ACC title game to Florida State. The 11-3 record also included a win over Clemson, which hadn’t lost to an ACC team other than Florida State since 2011.

The only thing Johnson enjoys more than proving people wrong is winning. He has done plenty of that. Over the past four years, only FSU (28) and Clemson (26) have won more ACC games than Georgia Tech (21).

Georgia Tech has a distinguished place in college football history, going all the way back to John Heisman coaching there for 15 years in the early 1900s and both Bobby Dodd and Bobby Ross picking up national titles almost 40 years apart.

It’s notable then that before Johnson was hired in 2008, Georgia Tech had won 11 games only once since Dodd’s title in 1952. Johnson has led two teams to 11 wins (2009 and ’14).

This doesn’t prevent Johnson from getting prickly with even the softest of softball questions. A question about the exquisite match of junior quarterback Justin Thomas with Johnson’s option offense is volleyed back at a reporter.

“He’d be good at whatever offense you ran,” Johnson said.

At 5-11 and 189 pounds, most other schools weren’t willing to give Thomas a chance at quarterback. Alabama wanted him to play cornerback. With his speed (he was the 100-meter state champ in high school in Alabama) and quickness, Thomas is the perfect fit for Johnson’s scheme. He ran for 1,086 yards last season but he’s also the best passer Johnson has had at Georgia Tech.

With four of the top five running backs gone from the No. 2 rushing offense in the country, Thomas’ role might expand this season, which is fine by Johnson.

“I’m glad he’s on our team,” Johnson said. “He’s pretty good.”

Joe Giglio’s 2015 ACC Football Forecast

Johnson also has confidence in a defense that returns eight starters from a group that ranked No. 17 in takeaways last season with 29.

On paper, the only problem for Georgia Tech is the schedule. Clemson is its annual crossover partner from the Atlantic Division. The rotation for the second crossover game happens to be Florida State this year.

Given Duke, UNC, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech don’t have a crossover game against Clemson or FSU (let alone both), that’s a distinct disadvantage for the Yellow Jackets. Not that Johnson sees it that way. He’s 5-3 against Clemson and 2-2 against FSU but has a 2-5 mark against both Virginia Tech and Miami.

“We’ve had better success with them than we’ve had with Virginia Tech and Miami,” Johnson said. “You just have to play the games on the field.”

Giglio: 919-829-8938

ACC preview schedule

Atlantic Division

May 31: No. 1 Florida State

June 7: No. 2 Clemson

June 14: No. 3 N.C. State

June 21: No. 4 Louisville

June 28: No. 5 Boston College

July 5: No. 6 Syracuse

July 12: No. 7 Wake Forest

Coastal Division

July 19: No. 1 Virginia Tech

July 26: No. 2 Georgia Tech

Aug. 2: No. 3 UNC

Aug. 9: No. 4 Duke

Aug. 16: No. 5 Pitt

Aug. 23: No. 6 Miami

Aug. 30: No. 7 Virginia

Georgia Tech at a glance

2014: 11-3 (6-2 ACC)

Coach: Paul Johnson (58-35, eighth year at Georgia Tech)

Returning starters: Offense (6), Defense (8), Special teams (2)

Plus

▪  It can’t be said too many times: quarterback Justin Thomas was born to play in this offense. Nebraska’s Tommy Frazier might be the best option quarterback in college football history and Thomas threw for yards (1,719) and ran for more yards (1,086) than Frazier did as a senior in 1995.

It also helps that four starters return on an experienced offensive line.

▪  The defense had its lapses last year, notably in a 48-43 loss at UNC, but the Jackets will be strong up the middle with the return of senior defensive tackle Adam Gotsis, junior linebacker P.J. Davis and senior safety Jamal Golden.

Minus

▪  Synjyn Days (924 rushing yards) and Zach Laskey (851 yards) were quite a one-two punch last year. They’re gone, and with injuries in the spring, there’s some uncertainty about who will play the “B” back.

▪  For a team that attempted the fewest passes (203) in the ACC, Georgia Tech had two receivers taken in the NFL draft. DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller combined to catch 13 touchdowns, which was more than UNC’s Ryan Switzer and Quinshad Davis had in a pass-heavy offense.

Best-case scenario

Even with a new set of running backs and receivers, Thomas continues to work his magic and the defense takes its play up a notch. A regular-season split with Clemson and FSU leads to another division title and the Jackets end FSU’s three-year title reign in Charlotte.

Worst-case scenario

Thomas doesn’t get enough help from the newcomers, the defense regresses and the schedule is too much. Seven regular-season wins continue the bowl streak, 18 years and counting, but the division race goes by the wayside.

Bottom line

Only Ohio State had a better finish to the 2014 season. With Thomas, Georgia Tech has a chance to build on that finish and repeat as division champions. The schedule does not set up in their favor but Johnson enjoys proving people wrong.

Newcomer to watch

Patrick Skov, RB

After watching Georgia Tech run for 331 yards in the ACC title game, the graduate transfer from Stanford thought he could be a good fit at “B” back for the Jackets. He’ll get a chance and likely more work (12 carries, 18 yards) than he did last year as primarily a blocking back for the Cardinal.

Schedule

Sept. 3 Alcorn State

Sept. 12 Tulane

Sept. 19 at Notre Dame

Sept. 26 at Duke

Oct. 3 UNC

Oct. 10 at Clemson

Oct. 17 Pitt

Oct. 24 Florida State

Oct. 31 at Virginia

Nov. 7 OPEN

Nov. 12 Virginia Tech

Nov. 21 at Miami

Nov. 28 Georgia

Schedule analysis

After those first two games, no team in the country has a more difficult schedule. There are no obvious “gimme” wins in those final 10 games. Even the Virginia game is on the road and the week after playing FSU. That Pitt game, even at home, looks all kinds of dangerous sandwiched between Clemson and FSU. Even the open date, after nine games, is a disadvantage.