The start of Georgia Tech’s 2010 season is now five days away. The ACC title defense officially begins at 1 p.m. Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium when the Yellow Jackets host South Carolina State. Last season, after losing just one conference game and sneaking past Clemson in the conference championship, the Yellow Jackets were named outright ACC champions for the first time in nearly 20 years. What will they need to do this year to repeat?
1. Peak in mid-October: With several pivotal road games dotting Georgia Tech’s schedule, the Yellow Jackets’ 2010 slate is markedly tougher than their journey a year ago. The majority of their most difficult games are backloaded into the second half of the season. As a result, Georgia Tech must start peaking on all cylinders well ahead of its Oct. 23 showdown at Clemson. There really is no reason for the team not to be undefeated going into that eighth game of the year. Following the contest against the Tigers — whom the Yellow Jackets beat in last December’s conference championship — games against Virginia Tech, Miami and Duke loom. If the Yellow Jackets even go 3-1 during that stretch, they could still have a shot at claiming the Coastal Division crown once again.
2. Stay as healthy as possible: While head coach Paul Johnson has full confidence in each of the backups on his newly released two-deep depth chart, he still will need to keep the group from dipping too far into the second-team units. That is particularly the case at quarterback. Joshua Nesbitt, the senior starter, willed the Yellow Jackets to several late-game victories last season. His passion and effort was well documented when he snatched a fumble back from a Florida State player, converted a clutch fourth-down in overtime against Wake Forest and coordinated long, clock-eating drives against Clemson and North Carolina. Although backup Tevin Washington shined in spring camp, the Yellow Jackets will just be much more comfortable operating under a healthy Nesbitt — and other starters for that matter.
3. Keep that underdog mentality: Johnson likes to convince his team it is overlooked and ill-regarded. It is as if he takes great joy in relishing the underdog status his program has thrived under the past two seasons. While Georgia Tech ought to be considered the hunted, Johnson keeps telling his players they are the hunters, looking to prove to the world that they deserve the lofty billing most have been hesitant to offer them. If Johnson can keep them thinking that way, particularly if they are 8-0 following a win at Clemson, then he may have a team so humble and hungry for repeat status that it may rankle the ACC when it travels to Virginia Tech the following week.
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4. Hold the line: Regularly last season, Georgia Tech’s defense stood tall when it mattered most, holding on goal-line stands or coming up with a clutch turnover. Much of that was overlooked by the fact that the unit averaged 360 yards allowed per game and gave up nearly 70 plays of 20 yards or more. Although it was burned by the big play in 2009, the defense still held. This season, with a new scheme and a veteran coach leading the unit, it should be better overall. Even if the defense is just marginally better than it was last season, the Yellow Jackets offense should still be prolific enough to offset whatever issues do crop up. Bear in mind, two of Georgia Tech’s three losses last season were decided by 10 points or fewer.
5. Get help: With a stacked Coastal Division, this may be the most important key on this list. Due to its strenuous schedule, it is unlikely Georgia Tech will go undefeated in the ACC this season — but who knows? It definitely could happen — but multiple conference losses probably will not be enough to go to Charlotte, N.C., on Dec. 4. Chances are high that because other Coastal Division teams have equally challenging schedules against themselves — four teams from the division were ranked in the AP preseason top 25 — some combination of Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech will end up with multiple conference losses. If Georgia Tech can emerge with even just one loss in ACC play, it could return to the title game. And if the Yellow Jackets return against a much weaker Atlantic Division, there is little reason to believe oranges won’t be raining upon them again.