But after losing to Virginia on Saturday in an almost noble kind of way – yes, even in these most cynical times there is still room for honorable defeat – Collins let us in on another truth of this re-engineering of the Yellow Jackets:

Losing sucks.

Tech came into this game a 16-point underdog, pitted a diminished defense against a stylishly diverse quarterback and toyed with an upset only to fall 33-28. Afterward, Collins answered the question: If you cut the resolute coach, does he not bleed? 

As Collins settled into the cubby of a visitor’s postgame interview room beneath Scott Stadium, he took a long moment gathering himself before launching into an opening statement. His eyes were red. He forced his words through a tightly clenched throat.   

“I’ve been coaching a long time (sigh) and as a coach at times you can distance yourself from the emotion and be very pragmatic with what’s going on,” he began.

“But this one ... the way these guys invested, believe in what we’re doing, believe in each other, compete and fight and do everything that we ask and come out and play at a really, really high level and then fall short is painful.

“I hurt for them, hurt for the coaching staff because we’ve got some special young men in that locker room who really, regardless of circumstances, regardless of who’s out, regardless of who’s injured, it doesn’t matter. They just come out and play and compete and fight over and over and over and over and over. And I do not take that for granted. And I hope nobody in the Georgia Tech fan base takes that for granted.”

Yes, sooner or later, Tech is going to have to win this kind of game to maintain any credibility. But Saturday wasn’t yet that time.

This team’s most versatile quarterback, redshirt freshman James Graham, went from being benched at halftime a week ago to putting together a brief-career-best 15-of-22 passing for 229 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Graham’s method of refocusing in practice last week – dropping and pumping out 10 push-ups for every mistake – seemed effective. He said he probably did at least an extra 200 of them as a result. There may be cause to worry about the quarterback getting too muscle-bound to throw a decent ball, but at least there seems no reason to question his commitment.

“He’s learning how to be a big-time college football player,” Collins said.

Of all the Tech losses this season – and there have been seven of them through nine games – let this go down as at least the most entertaining one. Less than two minutes into the game, Tech was throwing deep, Ahmarean Brown running to the post and collecting a 59-yard scoring bomb.

Jordan Mason #27 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets rushes past Zane Zandier #33 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the second half during a game at Scott Stadium on November 9, 2019 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)
Photo: Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

There were three lead changes in the last 10:36 of the first half. The teams exchanged touchdowns in the last 81 seconds of that half, the two offenses traversing a combined 115 yards in a mere seven plays. Between them they put up 45 points and 494 yards of total offense (317 through the air) in the half.

“All week, we talked about making one more play because we are so close. I hate that we couldn’t make it, one extra play to give them success and the result they fought for. It hurts,” Collins said. 

The one painful play not made Saturday, he said, was a let-down on coverage of a squib kickoff near the end of the half that allowed the Cavs to return it 40 yards to midfield. From there, with just 44 seconds left in the half, quarterback Bryce Perkins put together a touchdown drive that gave Virginia the lead for good, 24-21.

Tech would go on a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to get within the five points with more than five minutes left in the game. But again, Perkins took over and ran out the clock.

Collins’ first team at Tech is a real can of mixed nuts. You never know what you’re going to get when you reach in for a handful. All in all, though, Saturday was more cashews than those big, ugly Brazil nuts.

It has been 29 years and six days – in an alternate universe and at a time when up was obviously down – since Tech and Virginia played in a game of pressing importance. If you are under 30 and you don’t believe it, go on the Google machine and look it up.

It really happened: The Yellow Jackets beat No. 1-ranked Virginia in 41-38 thriller that defined college football in 1990. The win propelled Tech to a share of the national title.

This was not that. This may never be that again.

But Saturday in this same Jeffersonian setting, they trotted out a game more competitive than most would have thought possible. And that is nothing to be blithely dismissed.

And if the Tech coach got a little overwrought afterward, that’s OK, too. 

“He is one million percent invested every single day, no matter what it is,” linebacker David Curry said of Collins. “Losing is not acceptable in this program. To see him tear up, that’s normal for us. That proves to us how much he cares.”

There is another name they give to the moral victory.

It’s called a loss.

And that hurts, as we were reminded Saturday.

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About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.
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