After watching Georgia Tech dominate No. 7 Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl, Yellow Jackets fans want to know if they can expect to see the trend continue next season.
Georgia Tech completed an 11-3 season, only the fifth 11-win season in program history, with a 49-34 win over the SEC’s other Bulldogs on Wednesday night. The incredible run includes wins over Georgia, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Miami, as well as a Mississippi State team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation for a month.
When the final rankings are released next week, the No. 12 Yellow Jackets should land among the top 10. That hasn’t happened in a season-ending poll since 1998, when George O’Leary’s team went 10-2, beat Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl and wound up No. 9 in the Associated Press rankings.
“That’s what we wanted from the start of the year,” junior defensive tackle Adam Gotsis said. “We worked hard all spring and summer. That was obviously the goal. Coming into the season not ranked pretty well in our conference, something like 14th in our conference and fifth in the Coastal Division, so it kind of shows that you can’t listen to what everyone says and you just got to go play ball. At the end of the day, that’s what we did.”
There were several keys to Georgia Tech’s success this season.
This was a resilient group that head coach Paul Johnson has said all year has been willing to work hard and not complain. They bought into things and were never swayed from their goal of reaching the ACC championship game, even when midseason losses to Duke and North Carolina made the picture look dark.
“I’ll tell you, I was really, really proud of our football team,” Johnson said. “I told them after the game in the locker room, I think this concluded my 36th year of coaching, and these guys were probably as much fun or more fun team to coach than any team I’ve been associated with, just because they play so hard and they care so much about each other.”
Second, Johnson finally got the right quarterback to run his offense. Justin Thomas was a good enough athlete to commit to Alabama, but the Tide wanted him as a defensive back and Thomas still wanted to play quarterback. Thomas, unlike his predecessor, the uber-talented Vad Lee, knew how to run the option, and Johnson was able to go back to his bread and butter.
As a result, Georgia Tech was able to run Johnson’s playbook the right way. Thomas showed off his great legs and a surprisingly good arm, better than any quarterback Johnson had coached during his previous six years at Georgia Tech. Thomas ran for 121 yards and three touchdowns and threw for 125 yards and one touchdown and was named MVP of the Orange Bowl.
“I want to give a lot credit to Justin Thomas,” All-America guard Shaq Mason said. “That man just had control the whole game. He really managed the game (Wednesday).”
Said Johnson, “You know, Justin has been great all year. I think he’s gotten better and better. I think every time we play, he gains experience. Sometimes he’s played so well and we’ve put him in spots to do things, but you don’t realize it’s his first year starting. He’s only a sophomore. I’m really excited about what he can do in the future.”
Mason was the mainstay on a dependable, healthy offensive line. Add in strength at the B-back position for the first time in a couple of years, thanks to Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey, and a deep group of A-backs, and Georgia Tech had no trouble moving the ball. The Yellow Jackets averaged 37 points per game and stumbled only briefly during the season.
The other key was the continued growth of the defense under coordinator Ted Roof. After the embarrassing loss to North Carolina, when the Yellow Jackets were raked for 500-plus yards, the defense took a more aggressive stand. They were no longer content to sit back and play zone defense, instead putting more pressure on the quarterback and relying on their underrated group of secondary players to make a play.
More often than not, it worked. In the Orange Bowl, Georgia Tech’s defense allowed 605 yards, but most of that came between the 20s.
Georgia Tech’s unwillingness to quit showed off many times, starting with D.J. White’s hustle play against Pittsburgh to strip Brandon Conner near the goal line of a breakaway run, to Isaiah Johnson’s hustle play against Georgia to prevent a fake field goal from turning into a touchdown. In the Orange Bowl, it was an interception by Chris Milton and a forced fumble by Jamal Golden that helped change the momentum.
“I think it was a team effort,” Milton said. “Offense moved the ball well, and we got a couple key stops to open up the game a little bit. Everybody just did their part and played their role.”
Georgia Tech will return the bulk of its team for next season. They’ll have to replace Mason, many of the A-backs and both Laskey and Days. But the defensive front returns intact, and the Yellow Jackets will get outside linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days back for 2015.
“I’m going to miss Coach Johnson, the staff, all the players that I’ve seen grow up from their official visits to now,” Synjyn Days said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what Georgia Tech has in 2015.”