SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #14 Georgia Tech
College football season is still weeks away from getting underway, but there’s no reason to be sad! Here at SQ we’ve got you covered with everything you need to know about the nation’s top teams. We’re previewing the top-25 teams as voted on by SQ writers and today we’re covering Georgia Tech.
Team: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
SQ Ranking: #14
2014 Record: 11-3
Finish in AP Poll: #8
Head Coach: Paul Johnson (8th season)
Key Arrivals: RB J.J. Green, C Will Bryan, MLB Victor Alexander, S A.J. Gray
Previewing Georgia Tech's Offense: Paul Johnson doesn't recruit the highest-rated talent, but his schemes cause nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators. Returning to lead Johnson's option offense is junior quarterback Justin Thomas, who ran for 1,086 yards and 8 touchdowns last season while throwing for nearly 1,800 yards and 8 more scores. Thomas will be a crucial factor for the Jackets' offense this season, as he will be surrounded by new starters. Gone are Synjyn Days and and Zach Laskey, Tech's lead backs. Expected to take their place are Marcus Allen and Broderick Snoddy.
The Yellow Jackets will also lose their top receiving options from last season, Deandre Smelter and Darren Waller. Smelter caught 35 passes for 715 yards and 7 touchdowns, and, when on the field, was a dynamic receiving threat in the mold of past Tech wideouts, Calvin Johnson and Demaryious Thomas. The offensive line will return four starters from a group that contributed to the nation's No. 2 rushing attack.
In a scheme as run-oriented and intricate as Johnson's, the importance of four returning starters on the offensive line far outweighs the losses at the skill positions.
Previewing Georgia Tech's Defense: Georgia Tech's defense has been a sore spot under Johnson. Previous defensive coordinator Al Groh consistently fielded a mediocre defense, but in 2014 the unit showed continual improvement under new defensive coordinator Ted Roof. In 2015, Johnson may employ his best defense since taking over as head coach of the Yellow Jackets.
Unlike the offense, Tech's defense only loses three starters from 2014. Quayshawn Nealy is the unit's biggest loss, as the middle linebacker tallied 92 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1.5 sacks, 1 fumble recovery and two touchdowns. The defense will miss Nealy's versatility and range, as well as the consistent presence of departed strong safety Isaiah Johnson.
Despite those two losses, the Jackets should field one of the most aggressive units in the ACC. Newcomers A.J. Gray and Victor Alexander should push for starting time immediately at safety and inside linebacker, respectively. Former linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days missed all of 2014, but has returned to man the defensive tackle position. His athleticism will create problems for opposing offensive lines, and Hunt-Days could emerge as a difference-maker for Roof.
The Yellow Jackets defense should be immensely improved compared to the last few seasons. Of course, any defensive unit that Georgia Tech fields will have the added benefit of the offense's high time-of-possession numbers.
Three Key Games:
1. Georgia Tech at Notre Dame, September 19th - After facing two weaker opponents to start the season, this game will be the first true obstacle to Georgia Tech's playoff hopes. Notre Dame will still likely be learning its offensive identity at this point, but the Jackets' offense should be firing on all cylinders. The Fighting Irish have a brutal opening stretch to start the season, as they will face Texas and Virginia before hosting Tech. It is not inconceivable that Georgia Tech could face an 0-2 Notre Dame team, but could also face a battle-tested 2-0 team in midseason form.
2. Georgia Tech at Clemson, October 10th - Further down the schedule, Georgia Tech will square off against the Clemson Tigers in what could be a preview of the ACC Championship Game. Both teams, which have aspirations of capturing an ACC title and making the playoff, will need to win this game. Tech may play a Clemson team led by Atlanta-native Deshaun Watson at quarterback. Watson is an extremely athletic quarterback who will test Roof's defensive versatility. The winner of this game would significantly strengthen their playoff resume.
3. Georgia Tech vs. Georgia, November 28th - Always circled on the schedule, this year's "Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate" could have playoff implications. Both teams have playoff aspirations, and could win their respective divisions. Under Mark Richt, the Bulldogs have largely dominated the Yellow Jackets, but the momentum is on Tech's side following last year's 30-24 overtime win in Athens. There haven't been many recent games in this rivalry that have meant something, but this year's meeting could be one for the ages.
Final Analysis: Paul Johnson enters the 2015 season with his best chance to achieve national success since taking over the program in 2008. A much improved defense, a veteran quarterback and offensive line should make the Yellow Jackets favorites to win their division.
Despite losing several key players at the skill positions, Justin Thomas makes Tech's offense dangerous. The junior quarterback has learned the intricacies of Johnson's complicated offense, and proved last year that he can run it in an extremely effective manner. Behind an offensive line that returns four out of five starters, Thomas should be able to gash opposing defenses and keep the offense on the field.
Defensively, Ted Roof will likely field Tech's best defense in recent memory. The loss of Quayshawn Nealy and Isaiah Johnson will be lessened by the arrival of tenacious newcomers, and an improved defensive line and secondary. Georgia Tech's defensive backs may prove to be the best in the ACC when all is said and done, and Jabari Hunt-Days is a name to watch at the defensive tackle position.
Georgia Tech should be considered a favorite to win the ACC, with an outside shot to make the College Football Playoff if things break the right way. The Yellow Jackets will face at least six quality opponents in 2015, and will have as good a case as anyone in the eyes of the committee.
Playing the role of the hunted is new to the Jackets however, and they could stumble against some of their elite opponents. If Tech is able to get consistent play from its defense and another playmaker on offense emerges, the Yellow Jackets could win 10 or 11 games in 2015. Should that fail to happen, Paul Johnson's team will have a hard time against Notre Dame, Clemson, FSU and Georgia. Projecting Tech's season is not easy, but 9-3 and a New Year's Six Bowl seems like a safe bet, considering some of the opponents they will face.