ATLANTA -- With half a season in the books, it’s an appropriate time to take a look at the Georgia Tech football team and determine its real nature.
Is this a team the offensive juggernaut that averaged 51.6 points in its first five games? Or is it a paper tiger that’s benefited by a weak schedule, one that will be exposed by the end-of-the season gauntlet?
Georgia Tech is off to a 6-0 start, the best since the 1966 team, the final one coached by Bobby Dodd. Even the 1990 national championship team had a tie by now. The Yellow Jackets are already eligible for a bowl game, and contingents with connections to the ACC have been visiting Grant Field. The Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, which gets the second selection after the conference’s BCS choice, had representation present Saturday.
“To accomplish something that hasn’t been done since 1966 certainly speaks volumes to those guys,” head coach Paul Johnson said. “We celebrated for a day, and then we get back to work.”
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After steamrolling the opposition in the first four weeks, Tech has been tested the past two games. In each case, the Jackets were able to hang on to a big lead and win the game. But it has gotten closer. In last week’s 21-16 win over Maryland, the Terps had the ball and a chance to take the lead with 4:11 remaining, only to have the Tech defense rise to the occasion and come up with the crucial stop.
Here’s what we know about the Yellow Jackets midway through the season:
Quarterback Tevin Washington has proven to be the right choice to run the triple-option, but he still has learning to do. He called his own number 32 times last week and doesn’t have the body build that’s likely to withstand such a weekly pounding.
Washington, who has gained 309 yards and scored six times this season, said he missed too many reads against Maryland. Regardless, he isn’t likely to survive the season if he takes as much responsibility.
Washington has shown he can pass the ball with effectiveness. He has thrown for 1,052 yards and 10 touchdowns. He still launches the occasional long throw or fires one into the dirt, but, for the most part, he gives the team a quality passing game.
Stephen Hill (17 catches, four touchdowns) gives the team a game-breaking receiver.
A-back Orwin Smith has the size and speed to be a star. He has rushed for 464 yards and eight touchdowns. Things happen when Smith touches the ball -- he created a 12-yard touchdown run Saturday that was highlight reel material. But he ran it only four times against Maryland, and that’s not enough.
The defense continues to show improvement in coordinator Al Groh’s second season. The ability to stop Maryland from threatening to win the game in the waning moments Saturday might have been a big step in the growth process.
Julian Burnett continues to establish himself as a star at inside linebacker. The Westside product had nine tackles last week and leads the team with 58 tackles. ”Julian is a good player,” Johnson said. “You know how I feel about him.”
The secondary, which began the season as the greenest part of the defense, has matured and continues to get good production out of Rod Sweeting, Louis Young and Isaiah Johnson. There have already been seven interceptions, one fewer than all last season.
This area continues to be a concern because of inconsistencies in the kicking and punting games. David Scully averaged 60.8 yards on kickoffs, including one touchback that sailed through the end zone. Sean Poole (37.7 yard average) had done all the punting until Chandler Anderson punted twice last week. Justin Moore missed a 34-yard field goal and has little range outside 40 yards; he has made 4-of-7 field goals.
The return game showed a spark against Maryland, with Tony Zenon returning a kick 79 yards and Zach Laskey, getting a rare chance to return a punt, broke one for 26 yards.
After this week’s game at Virginia, the Yellow Jackets will start pulling against the tougher portion of their schedule. There are consecutive games against Miami, Clemson and Virginia Tech that will answer a lot of the lingering questions.
“I try to approach it like I tell the team,” Johnson said. “You just get ready to play this week. And historically I’ve found through the years coaching that if you do that you can look around in November and say, ‘Wow, we’ve got ourselves a great opportunity.’
“You start worrying about that stuff halfway through the year, and it won’t end well.”