There’s a little old and a little new involved in Georgia Tech’s season opener against No. 25 Tennessee on Monday.
The series is an old one. It dates all the way back to 1902. Between 1946 and 1987, the teams played each other almost every year. Part of it was geographical in nature. Part of it was Georgia Tech head coach Bobby Dodd’s affinity for Tennessee, where he played as a quarterback.
The new starts with the stadium. The game will be played at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s only the second college game played — Florida State and Alabama christened it Saturday — and is part of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, the first time the Yellow Jackets have been invited to the event.
But the real intriguing new part for Georgia Tech revolves around roster questions, particularly who will take over at quarterback and how the new B-back will fare when it comes to replacing his all-conference predecessor.
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The Yellow Jackets, 9-4 in 2016, will have a new player under center. Three-year starter Justin Thomas wrapped up his career after leading the team to a pair of bowl victories. Thomas was the ideal player to run the team’s option attack and was adept and making the right call. He was an effective passer and a durable player who missed only one game.
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson hasn’t named a successor to Thomas and may not do so until kickoff. There are four players in the mix, led by Matthew Jordan, a run-first quarterback who started one game last year when Thomas was injured and led the team to a win at Virginia Tech.
Others in the picture include TaQuon Marshall, who took most of the snaps at No. 1 in the spring when Jordan missed time with a foot injury that required surgery, as well as redshirt freshmen Lucas Johnson and Jay Jones.
“I feel real good about that position,” Paul Johnson said. “I think we’ve got four guys at that position that I could call a game for, and they’re going to have the luxury of being surrounded by a bunch of guys that had experience and played a lot of football.”
KirVonte Benson won the B-back job during the preseason after Dedrick Mills was dismissed from the team and will make the start. Benson is smaller than Mills but has game-breaking speed. Paul Johnson called Benson a “home run threat” and said the team hasn’t had a player with that ability since Jonathan Dwyer (2007-09). True freshman Jerry Howard, an early preseason practice sensation, likely will be the No. 2 player there.
Tennessee will start a new quarterback, too, now that Joshua Dobbs has moved on to NFL. Quinten Dormady is expected to start, but the Volunteers reportedly have installed some special running packages for the more athletic Jarrett Guarantano.
That means running back John Kelly and receiver Jauan Jennings are going to be the main building blocks for the offense. Kelly ran for 630 yards and five touchdowns last season, while Jennings caught 40 passes for 580 yards and seven touchdowns. They will be operating behind an offensive line that will have two new starters and will be without a pair of tackles, one out with an injury and the other out with a season-ending injury.
The Tennessee defense will be led by safety Todd Kelly Jr., who led the team with 71 tackles and has eight career interceptions in 2016. The special teams are in good hands with returner Evan Berry, who averaged 32.9 yards on kickoff returns, and punter Trevor Daniel, who averaged 44.6 yards and is on the watch list for the Ray Guy Award.
Tennessee got out of the gate with a 5-0 start last year, but the Vols endured a three-game losing streak and lost to Vanderbilt for the third time in five years. The 9-4 season looked good on paper but didn’t satisfy the program’s fans or head coach Butch Jones.
“We still have a lot of improving to do,” Jones said. “We still have a lot of dreams and goals and aspirations that are out there as a program.”
Tennessee is still considered an unknown in the SEC. The Vols were picked to finish third in the Eastern Division at the SEC Media Days behind Georgia and Florida.
Tennessee leads the all-time series 24-17-2. The teams haven’t played since 1987 when Tennessee won 29-15. The Yellow Jackets were 3-0 against the SEC last year and are 5-1 against the conference the past two years.
“We’re really excited to have the opportunity to display our program on a national level against a quality opponent,” Paul Johnson said.
Georgia Tech vs. Tennessee
8 p.m., Monday