Tech is where it needs to be, but things are about to get tougher

Georgia Tech is 3-1, having lost its only close game. In that sense, we might say the Yellow Jackets are better than their record. Not lots better, though. Once its date with Central Florida game was canceled, it would have been hard for Tech to lose any post-Tennessee September game.

To its credit, Tech hasn’t come close to losing since Labor Day, outscoring opponents by an aggregate 105-34. The bigger deal is that the Jackets are 2-0 in ACC play, although the past two Saturdays were spent dispatching Pittsburgh and North Carolina, two of the half-dozen worst Power Five teams. (Here’s who Pitt and Carolina have beaten – Youngstown State in overtime, Old Dominion and Rice.)

If Tech has done nothing to suggest it can’t win the ACC Coastal Division, neither has it stamped itself as the team to beat. It hasn’t yet played outside the Perimeter. It lost its only lose-able game, though just how remains a puzzle. Had the Jackets not spit the bit on Labor Day night, they’d be in the Top 25. As is, they didn’t receive a vote in this week’s Associated Press poll. (They drew six in the coaches’ version, same as South Carolina – go figure – and Navy.)

In sum, Tech has positioned itself nicely without catching anyone’s fancy. And that’s OK. Nobody saw the 2014 Orange Bowl winners coming until they routed Clemson on Nov. 15. Nobody figured last season’s team would amount to much until it went to Blacksburg and won with its backup quarterback. When the Jackets are good, they close like Mariano Rivera.

About Saturday’s game: Tech beat Carolina 33-7 and pretty much named the score. TaQuon Marshall had a tepid day throwing and lost a fumble. KirVonte Benson lost another fumble. Didn’t matter. The Tar Heels, who lost a bunch of players to the NFL draft and a bunch more – 13, at last count – to injury, were made to look awful, which is happening rather often. They’ve played three games in Chapel Hill. They lost them all. Always among the nation’s overrated head coaches, Larry Fedora mightn’t be a head coach much longer.

Said Paul Johnson, not exactly gushing: “For the most part our defense played really well again, and our offense made enough plays. I guess if you can rush the ball for 400 yards, you’ll win most games.”

(Tech rushed for 553 yards against Tennessee and did not win. Ouch, babe.)

Johnson on his defense: “We’re playing better. We’re tackling better.” Then, being his pragmatic self: “(Carolina) hadn’t been scoring a lot of points.”

The key moment, if such a game can be said to have one, came after Marshall’s fumble. Carolina’s Chazz Surratt threw a pass off play-action that one of three Tech defenders might have grabbed. Safety A.J. Gray did the deed. On the next snap, Benson burst 63 yards to make the score 17-0 with 8:45 left in the third quarter. Said Johnson: “The way the game was going, I felt 17 was a pretty good lead.”

Carolina changed quarterbacks – for two plays. On the second, the former LSU starter Brandon Harris threw the ball to Gray. Harris wasn’t seen again. Where have you gone, Mitch Trubisky?

Said Johnson: “The competition level is going to move way up on offense next game.”

Yes. That will be staged in Miami Gardens two weeks hence in whatever that stadium of many names is called now. Tech’s division chances figure to come down to three games – Miami there, Clemson in Death Valley and Virginia Tech here. (OK, and maybe Duke in Durham.) Win two of those three, and the Jackets have a real chance of playing for the ACC championship.

As tempting as it is to say Tech’s defense has improved, the memory of Tennessee scoring five touchdowns on its final six possession remains raw. As tempting as it is to suggest that Marshall and Benson have proved reasonable facsimiles of Justin Thomas and Dedrick Mills, they’ve done it against the Volunteers, who are horribly coached, then FCS Jacksonville State, then the 113th-ranked defense among 129 FBS teams (Pitt) and now the 112th (Carolina.)

Through four games, Tech is more or less where it needs to be. It has shown enough to make us think it can/should get better. It’s also about to step up in class. Having been around Johnson a while, I like to think I know how to read his words (and tone, and facial expressions): My interpretation is that he believes this bunch has a shot to do something, which it does.

Then again, he’s still Paul Johnson. When someone asked if Carolina’s defensive shifting – essentially the Heels’ linemen did a “Time Warp” jump to the left (or a step to the right) before every snap – he fairly snorted. “The shifting wasn’t a problem,” he said. “Whatever way they lined up, they were going to play the other. If you can’t figure that out, you probably shouldn’t go to Georgia Tech.”

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.