FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The question is so simplistic in its most basic sense, but try to flesh it out and a myriad of complex answers could come cascading upon you.
Where will Georgia Tech be this time next year?
It is, of course, a query to which no one has an actual reply right now, only mere guesses. But almost to a man, the Yellow Jackets themselves believe that late tonight, they might be in position to take a big step toward making their only real prediction for next season come to fruition.
“We’re trying to get something bigger than the Orange Bowl next year; like a national championship,” true freshman receiver Stephen Hill said.
While Hill and his teammates understand that many more games stand in the way of what might happen next January, they believe that a win tonight in the Orange Bowl at Miami’s Land Shark Stadium could propel them into the national title discussion heading into next season.
“It would be huge for our program,” sophomore A-back Roddy Jones said. “It would springboard us into next year, and it would be kind of a statement on a national level. To play in a BCS bowl game and to get a win is always a big step for the program.”
Many argue that this step actually began two Decembers ago, when Georgia Tech was fed up with its previous coaching regime and sought another.
Hiring current Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson, the school took the bold risk of bringing a new head coach — even though he was a proven winner at smaller levels — to Atlanta with the hopes that he and his unique spread option offense could instantly change the nature of football relations in the Peach State.
Judging from Georgia Tech’s largely unexpected 9-4 finish, Chick-fil-A Bowl berth and streak-stopping win over rival Georgia during Johnson’s first season, the payoff was quick.
Entering this final game of Year 2, he has led the team to an even more impressive 11-2 record and an ACC championship. Not to mention, at least three of his players are being given serious consideration as NFL draft prospects as juniors. For a coach one year removed from implementing a completely new system, the feat is nothing short of “amazing,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
“What he has done there was a brilliant hire at Georgia Tech,” Ferentz said in an Orange Bowl news conference Monday. “And he’s won. They’ve won 20 games in two years, so that says it all right there.”
While the success itself has showcased to the broader college football world that Johnson was not joking two summers ago when he predicted an immediate turnaround for his program, there have been other factors, some argue, that have gone into making Georgia Tech the type of program that can compete nationally on a consistent basis.
Much like Johnson last season, then-Georgia Tech defensive tackle Darryl Richard made a bold statement last season when he said the following to members of the media: “I think his teams in the future will compete for championships because it’s the way he programs a team. … I believe his system builds all the way from the offseason; how he makes men out of boys. It’s a mentality, and I think it’s showing up in football games.”
Halfway through the Yellow Jackets’ surprise run through a challenging schedule, Richard made those comments nearly an hour after Georgia Tech’s emotional home win over Florida State. With a late-game defensive stop and an ensuing fumble leading to the win, Richard was compelled to say that conditioning and confidence not only prepared the team physically, but also mentally in such a game-on-the-line situation.
For current freshmen like Macon native Julian Burnett, that type of focus has even translated off field.
In addition to having to persevere in various practice workouts, Burnett said he had to learn how to properly fight through one tough stretch this season following a mid-year knee injury.
“Early on in the season, I got a chance to come out and play and then after the injury, I kind of fell back and didn’t get as much playing time,” Burnett said. “But I kept pushing, stayed strong and believed in my ability and in the coaches and how they were coaching, but I just believed that I can get back out there, and I’m glad to be in the position I am now.”
Relishing various starting opportunities, Burnett has seen the field often. While he is not expected to be in the game on the first series, he still likely will make an impact often in the game.
Similar to Hill, as a true freshman who has had extensive playing experience, Burnett also values the importance tonight’s game and the impact it could have for future seasons. Although it may be hard to maintain such high levels of expectation throughout the next several seasons, he believes the players in his class and future classes have no other choice.
“To have many years coming after this, I just feel like I’ve got to uphold (this success) throughout the rest of my college career,” Burnett said.
As the youngest Yellow Jackets feel the pressure of wanting to live up to everything they have done this season, the most veteran players on the team believe the program is being left in good hands.
“This team is full of upside,” senior offensive lineman Cord Howard said.
The Phenix City, Ala., native is playing his final college game tonight, and he said he was glad to have spent time around those Yellow Jackets who are now charged with shaping the program for several seasons to come.
“They have not seen their best days yet; it’s coming,” Howard said. “I’m leaving behind a bunch of hard workers who don’t mind going that extra mile in order to be successful. So I’m sure they’ll be very, very good in the future.”