The run-up to Tech-Georgia is more intriguing when the underdog – almost always Georgia Tech – stands a real chance of winning. I’m not sure this underdog does. ESPN’s Football Power Index assesses the probability of the Yellow Jackets’ winning at 9.3 percent. We ask: Is a less-than-one-in-10 chance a real chance?
On the other hand, one-in-not-quite-10 trumps one-in-one-hundred, which not so long ago seemed an apt reflection of the gulf between these teams. Tech began its season 1-3. It was 3-4 after a home loss to Duke. Today it’s 7-4, assured of no worse than a second-place tie with Virginia, which the Jackets just beat, in the ACC Coastal. It has made something of a season that might have gotten its coach fired.
That said – and there will, I caution, be many hedges in this missive – the ACC Coastal was won by Pittsburgh, which lost by 45 points to Penn State and by 31 to UCF, the People’s National Champ. (To be fair, Pitt did give Notre Dame a go.) Of the Jackets’ seven victories, two were against non-Power 5 opposition; two were against the ACC’s 13th- and 14th-best teams; two were against the league’s biggest flops. The other came against Virginia in overtime on a day when the Jackets were outgained by 98 yards.
There’s no denying that Georgia has had a soft road. The Bulldogs faced one opponent with the wherewithal to beat them, and that one won by 20 points. Still, Georgia has played three teams ranked among the top 19 in the latest Associated Press poll, and it beat No. 13 Florida by 19 on a neutral field and No. 17 Kentucky by 17 on the road. Tech has faced two ranked teams: It lost at home to No. 2 Clemson by 28 and to No. 24 Pitt by five after trailing 21-0. Not one of the Jackets’ seven victories came against a team receiving an AP vote this week.
Then again (told you), Tech hasn’t lost at Sanford Stadium since 2012. Its coach is 3-2 between the hallowed hedges. The last Tech man to win that many times in Athens was Bobby Dodd, who retired after the 1966 season and has a stadium named after him. If the Jackets upset a Georgia team that nearly won last year’s national championship and has a shot at playing for another, they’ll rename something for this guy. How does “Paul Johnson’s Georgia Institute of Technology” sound?
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All of Johnson’s victories in Athens have required the extraordinary. His 2008 team trailed 28-12 at halftime; with 7:55 left in the third quarter, it led 35-28. The 2014 game saw Tech surrender the go-ahead touchdown with 18 seconds remaining and miss a PAT in overtime, and still it won. (Mark Richt. Squib kick.) Two years later, the Jackets trailed 27-14 with 6:28 remaining but seized on a bobble – Jacob Eason’s pass deflected off Terry Godwin to Lance Austin – and won on a Qua Searcy improvisation. Meant to throw a pass to quarterback Justin Thomas, the A-back reassessed and plunged into the end zone.
PJ after the latter game: “Not bad for a bunch of 80th-ranked recruiting classes – huh, Mark?” I laughed. What else could I do? The man had a point. And yet …
The talent differential in this series, always pronounced, has grown more severe with the arrival of Kirby Smart. Tech has faced one team that possesses anything close to the Bulldogs’ manpower: It trailed Clemson 28-7 at the half, 42-7 late in the third quarter. I doubt this will be that bad. The Jackets are better now than in September, and Clemson is likely a hair better than Georgia.
Crazy fun with numbers: Georgia ranks 13th nationally in both total offense and defense; Tech ranks 42nd in both categories. Under Nate Woody, the Jackets’ defense has gotten better at inducing turnovers (tied for ninth with 24 takeaways). Georgia, however, isn’t loose with the ball. It averages one turnover a game. The Jackets will require many more than that.
Something would have to happen to level this playing field. (Rain is forecast for Saturday morning, FYI.) The noon kickoff two days after Thanksgiving should have a dulling effect on the Sanford audience, but we note that Georgia hasn’t come close to losing at home since Searcy’s leap. The best-case scenario for Tech is that the Bulldogs will realize that, in the macro sense, this game doesn’t much matter. Win or lose Saturday, they’ll have to beat Alabama to make the playoff.
If you’re Tech, you’re hoping that Georgia’s date with Bama renders this a trap game. Ask yourself this, though: Do you see the Bulldogs getting trapped? The six previous times they’ve faced Tech knowing they’d play for the SEC championship, they’ve won. The margins of victory – 44, 17, 7, 14, 32 and 31 points.
Enough hedging. When Georgia is good enough to win the SEC East, it’s also good enough to beat Georgia Tech. Vegas, which doesn’t traffic in the fanciful, has set the opening line at 17 points. The Jackets will do well to cover. As far as actually winning ... I can’t see even Que Searcy making that leap.