The TaxSlayer Bowl not only offers Georgia Tech a chance at that ninth win the staff has talked about throughout the second half of the season, it’s a chance to say “so long” to an unforgettable player and offer an additional welcome in some impactful players who still have a few years ahead of them.
The Yellow Jackets (8-4) meet Kentucky (7-5) at Everbank Field in Jacksonville, in a game that features two teams that finished the season strong. Georgia Tech won five of its final six games, punctuated with a win over Georgia. Kentucky won five of its final seven and upset rival Louisville in the season finale.
The game, the 44th bowl game in which Georgia Tech has participated, will begin at 11 a.m. and be shown on ESPN.
A ninth win would be significant. The program has produced only 10 such seasons over the past 60 years. It would mark the fourth time under head coach Paul Johnson.
“Our focus is to get that ninth victory,” offensive line coach Mike Sewak said. “That’s a great number and it’s something we’d like achieve.”
The game will mark the end of the line for Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas, who will likely be found on the short list of the program’s all-time greats. He will leave a mark on the program with his versatility and his durability in running an offense that takes a physical toll on its quarterbacks.
The highlight this season for Thomas came against Duke. He accumulated 459 yards of total offense, the third most in school history, and was named the national player of the week. In that game, he became the 39th player in NCAA history with 4,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards in a career.
Thomas needs one touchdown pass to catch George Godsey, who threw 41, for fourth place on the program career list. He has 21 career rushing touchdowns, tied for 11th on the career list and one out of ninth place, which is shared by Leon Hardeman and Eddie Lee Ivery.
Johnson said, “JT will be a guy who created a lot of memories, winning twice in Athens, being MVP of the Orange Bowl and some of the plays he’s made.”
The group of newcomers is led by B-back Dedrick Mills and left guard Parker Braun, two of six true freshmen who played for the Yellow Jackets this season. Both players were named honorable mention freshmen All-America by Campus Insiders.
Mills leads the team with 12 total touchdowns, 11 of them on the ground, and ranks third in the nation for rushing touchdowns by freshmen. He has rushed for 602 yards, including a 132-yard effort against North Carolina.
“If he can do the right thing, he has a bright future,” Johnson said.
Braun took over in the starting lineup in the sixth game of the season against Pitt when Will Bryan was injured. When Bryan returned, he moved to right guard and Braun stayed put. He’s expected to be a mainstay and has more potential than his brother, Trey Braun, who played there from 2012-2015.
“There’s a reason why he got to start,” Sewak said. “When he was in there, he was very productive and was getting people on the ground.”
Braun had a team-high 84 knockdowns, even more than senior center Freddie Burden.
“Not bad for a freshman,” Sewak said. “He’ll do a better job as his technique develops, too. He’s very athletic and smooth in transition and changing direction.”
The Yellow Jackets have already won five more games this season than last year. That’s the second-largest improvement among all power-5 conference schools; only Colorado, Eastern Michigan, Central Florida and Wyoming had more with six.
“We didn’t have all the injuries,” Johnson said. “A year ago … I’ve never been through a year like that when so many people got hurt. And we were young a year ago … really young.”