Georgia Tech opens against the reigning national champ Thursday in a place known as Death Valley. When last Clemson played, it beat Alabama by 28 points on a neutral field. Depending on the hour, the Yellow Jackets are either a 36- or 37-point underdog, surely the biggest downward spread in Institute annals. If you’re Geoff Collins, about to work Game 1 of Year 1, how should you feel?
Pretty good, actually.
The watching world has already rendered a verdict on the 2019 Jackets. They’re picked to finish last in the ACC Coastal, a bad division. They’re tabbed to lose their first game by five touchdowns. Collins has taken the program from Paul Johnson, and even the proud PJ knew it was time to leave. He had one losing season over his first seven at the Flats; he had two in his final four.
At the end, even the smarty-pants Johnson could no longer lift 3-star recruits to great heights. After trouncing Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve 2014, Tech was 24-25 overall, 14-18 in league play. And such was the peculiarity of Johnson’s program that the next guy figured to have it even worse. Who else had a team without a passing quarterback or a tight end?
I can think of only one latter-day coach who did as much in a Power 5 league with as little talent, that being Gary Pinkel, who coached ’em up at Missouri. But the Johnson Method had its limits even for its creator, and the thought of his successor faring better using mostly the same tepid troops in a conventional system strains credulity.
This isn’t to say Collins can’t make Tech win — eventually. He has a solid background. He did nicely at Temple, which isn’t, ahem, a Brand Name in this sport. But he’s not apt to do as Johnson did in his GT Year 1, meaning go 9-4 and beat Georgia. This new man will do well to hit 6-6, and everyone knows it. Therein lies the reason Collins should be, all things considered, a happy camper.
Almost anything this season will be good enough. If the Jackets somehow make a bowl, he might win ACC coach of the year. (Hey, it worked for Josh Pastner.) If he goes 3-9, he can say, “What’d you expect? This program had one player drafted the past three years, and he was a kicker. I didn’t fall into a gold mine.”
Collins has roused Tech fans, never the rowdiest lot, by promising two basic things – that his program will recruit hard and play conventional football. That wouldn’t be a departure anywhere else, but he inherits the one Power 5 program that prided itself on doing neither. As an act to follow, Johnson’s isn’t a bad one. He won, yes, but he hadn’t won as much lately, and his constituency had seen enough of the B-back dive. Tech fans are eager for something different, even if that something, technically speaking, is new only to them.
Tech fans loved Johnson at the start: He talked big. He beat Georgia in his 12th month on the job. Chan Gailey worked six years and couldn’t do it once. Johnson took Gailey’s best recruiting class and won the 2009 ACC title (since revoked). Tech’s old guard ate that up. What that influential crew came not to love was that Johnson’s reign seemed less about Tech than about Johnson. He ran his offense. His offense was the program. If alums didn’t like it, tough.
Collins appears to have a feel for Tech fans. That’s no small thing. This isn’t an easy job. Some coaches hit campus and develop buyer’s remorse. Bobby Ross was here and gone in five years, and he won the UPI national championship. He also went 5-17 over his first two seasons, that at a time when Florida State and Miami weren’t ACC members. Ross was a demonstrably good coach with a stellar staff — his coordinators were Ralph Friedgen and George O’Leary — and it took them a while.
It figures to take Collins a while, too. As mentioned, this is no ordinary coach-to-coach transition. This is a total makeover. It was going to be that no matter who Tech hired after Johnson. They hired Collins, who enters Year 1 with something approaching a free pass, pun semi-intended. If his team comes within 30 of Clemson, he’ll have outperformed expectations. If not, Tech fans can blame it on PJ.
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