Georgia Tech’s feel-good win gives Collins another selling point

Geoff Collins made himself an easy target for people like ... well, me. He hit town talking fast and low, like Johnny Cash on Red Bull. He spoke of brands and the building thereof. He posted selfies from Waffle House. He re-invented the depth chart, a time-honored item not crying for a makeover. Then Georgia Tech lost five of its first six games, and we pundits began to wonder if the new man was all bass and no tune.

The dancing “Juice Crew” on Tech’s bench. The labeling of third down as “Money Down.” (Or, in the Collins notation, “$ Down.”) The #404Takeover. The “Effort-Based” defense. The desperate crew in “Glengarry Glen Ross” didn’t sell this hard. And when his Yellow Jackets lost consecutive games to The Citadel and Temple, you were looking for the showroom exit. But here’s the thing:

Collins inherited a program in need of salesmanship.

Under his predecessor, the emphasis was less on Georgia Tech than Paul Johnson. Tech fans loved it when he beat Georgia – he did the deed three times, all between the hedges – and when he won the Orange Bowl, but there was little year-over-year, ahem, buzz. It was the same offense. More to the point, it was the same stubborn coach who refused to deviate from his stylized methods. (That’s not necessarily a criticism; Johnson’s offense won a lot of games.)

Collins' first team was never going to win much. Johnson cared little for recruiting, and what recruits he got were to fit a system run by no other Power 5 school. Thursday night's 28-26 victory over fellow ACC-weakling North Carolina State meant that the Jackets will, once Georgia gets done with them, finish 3-9. After that 1-5 start, not going 2-10 was about the best the Yellow Jackets could do.

You can’t say that a three-win season represents success. (The success is that it’s about to be over.) At the same time, the second half was better than the first. (Then again, anything would have been.) The Jackets won in Miami. Five days after getting obliterated by an unexceptional Virginia Tech team, they took out their embarrassment on a team that hadn’t won since Oct. 10.

The Wolfpack have made a lot of opponents look good this season; of their six previous losses, the closest had been 14 points. The Jackets, who suffered their first home shutout since 1957 against Virginia Tech, needed three plays to score against State. James Graham hit Malachi Carter for 54 yards down the left sideline on the first snap. Graham then found Ahmarean Brown in the right corner of the end zone. Easy peasey.

The rest wasn’t so easy. Tech led 21-3, then 28-10. It had to fend off a 2-point conversion with 5:17 remaining to stay ahead. Safety Christian Campbell, who’d been ejected for targeting against Virginia Tech, blitzed and forced Devin Leary to overthrow an open receiver in the end zone. The Jackets bled out the clock on the ground. Graham converted on a third-and-2 option keep. Jordan Mason, who rushed for 141 yards, did the rest.

Said Mason: “The only thing going through my mind was, ‘Run like beast mode.’”

(Graham ran for 112 yards and threw for 129; he had a part in all four Tech touchdowns. His two fumbles, alas, helped keep State in it.)

Said Collins: “I’m proud of the guys, the way they continue to battle. We asked them to strike first and start fast, and they did. ... We asked them to finish.”

Then: “That’s the A-T-L philosophy we’ve talked about since we got here. We’re going to play a lot of people. ... It was kind of a revolving door because of the injuries, but nobody panicked. That’s the character and grit we talk about in this program and this institution.”

Said Carter: “We feel like everything’s falling into place.”

Said Mason: “My O-line. ... My first two runs, it was like butter.”

Collins again: “Great environment. ESPN. Under the lights. Downtown Atlanta.”

We spoke of overselling. That last bit qualifies, even down to its clipped cadence. (Collins tends to speak in bullet points.)

The reality: The announced crowd at Bobby Dodd Stadium was 38,198, marking a seasonal low. N.C. State is a bad team, and still it outgained the Jackets by 62 yards. ESPN can’t have been thrilled about televising a game between bottom-feeders from what’s essentially a one-team league. But hey, Tech won. It hasn’t done that often. It won’t win again until next season. It mightn’t score again this season. The record will show the Jackets beat N.C. State by two points in prime time.

Back to Collins: “We’re going to get better going forward. We’re playing with the right energy. We’re playing with the right toughness.”

That was the salesman, selling his heart out. It will take two full recruiting classes for real change to occur, but the process is underway. We don’t know if Collins can take Tech where it wants to go, but we do know he’ll shred his vocal cords in the attempt.

It should be noted that not everyone has begun to buy. Throughout the night, announcements were made that tickets – good tickets – remain available for the Georgia game. Might not want to say that too loudly around Bulldogs backers, though. They’re pretty sold on their team.