Beating these Bulldogs would be Paul Johnson’s peak

Paul Johnson and Kirby Smart shake hands after Georgia Tech’s 28-27 victory  at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016.

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Paul Johnson and Kirby Smart shake hands after Georgia Tech’s 28-27 victory at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016.

Say Georgia loses to Georgia Tech on Saturday. One week later, the Bulldogs will play for the SEC title with the possibility of a College Football Playoff berth on the line. (No two-loss team has made the field of four; a two-loss SEC champ might.) To borrow Paul Johnson’s phrase from 2009, Georgia would still have bigger fish to fry.

Say Tech loses to Georgia. The Yellow Jackets would slip to 7-5, which wouldn’t be a terrible thing after starting 1-3, but still. That could land them in Shreveport, the dreaded destination, and it would mark another season without much to celebrate, unless a home victory over unranked Virginia qualifies.

But say Tech beats Georgia. From the Jackets’ perspective, everything would change. That’s the effect a victory over the Bulldogs can have to a fan base that, in its heart of hearts, knows that beating Georgia once every three or four years is about the most it can ask. An 8-4 with the eighth victory coming in Athens would carry Institute alums into the winter with a sudden outbreak of the warm-and-fuzzies, and the thought of another few years of this head coach would seem so bad after all.

Paul Johnson has achieved much over 11 seasons at Tech – he has won the ACC (title since revoked), won the Orange Bowl (over an SEC team, ha!), and led the Jackets to four Coastal Division titles. But the division broke open this season, as often happens with this division, and was won by a team that didn’t receive a first-place vote at ACC media days.

Pittsburgh became the fourth different Coastal champ since last the Jackets finished first. Had we known that Miami and Virginia Tech, picked 1-2 in the division, would fall to pieces, we would have liked the chances of the team tabbed third, which was Georgia Tech. Alas, the Jackets started 0-2 in conference play and slid to 1-3 after a home loss to Duke. They were eliminated with two league games remaining.

Even after 11 games, it’s hard to know what to make of these Jackets. They lost at South Florida, which started 7-0 but went into Friday’s game with unbeaten Central Florida at 7-4. They won Oct. 25 at Virginia Tech, which entered its Friday date with Virginia having last won Oct. 13. They beat Miami two weeks ago, and the only victory Mark Richt’s team has managed since Oct. 6 came against Virginia Tech.

Georgia began the season ranked No. 3 by in the Associated Press poll and moved up to No. 2 for a month. It’s holding steady at No. 5 in the CFP rankings. It clinched the SEC East on Nov. 3. It’s the reigning SEC champ. It was almost the defending national champ. Georgia is again a Brand Name. Georgia also is the only opponent named, not in a complimentary way, in the song “Ramblin’ Wreck.”

For all Johnson has done, the reason he’s still held in high esteem by much of his constituency isn’t because his stylized offense outran Clemson and C.J. Spiller on a damp night in Tampa in 2009. It’s because, three times now, he has taken a team between the hedges and left crowing. He was hired to replace Chan Gailey, whose sin was being 0-for-Georgia, and until that day when Roddy Jones flashed down the Sanford Stadium sideline, it was possible to wonder if Tech would ever again trump its rival.

Some Tech fans have begun to weary of the stylized offense, and indeed of its architect. Tech was 3-9 in 2015 and 5-6 last season. This team’s halting start could have yielded a third losing season in four. That the Jackets have hoisted themselves above .500 was nice, but finishing 7-5 having beaten nobody of consequence won’t move the needle. Beating Georgia for a fourth time in 11 years – and a third time running at Sanford Stadium – would hush most every PJ detractor.

No Tech coach since the sainted Bobby Dodd has beaten a Georgia team this good. Even Johnson’s three victories came against Bulldogs for whom no bigger prize awaited. (Georgia was ranked No. 13 by AP in 2008, No. 9 in 2014; it was unranked two years ago.) Going by the AP poll, Johnson’s biggest win came against No. 4 Virginia Tech on Oct. 17, 2009. But that was a while ago, and it was in Atlanta, and the Hokies aren’t the hated mutts.

With very few exceptions, this game over the past half-century has mattered more to the side that has won much less often. (Georgia is 40-14 against Tech since Vince Dooley arrived from Auburn.) The Bulldogs would appear too good for these Jackets, which would mean that an improbable victory would stand as Peak PJ. For Tech under Johnson, there has never been a bigger fish.

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