Future looks bright for Jackets; this season may not be as bad as it seems

Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins waves to fans as he enters the football field before 2019 Georgia Tech Football Spring Game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Friday, April 26, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins waves to fans as he enters the football field before 2019 Georgia Tech Football Spring Game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Friday, April 26, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

At his farewell news conference, former coach Paul Johnson downplayed the harshness of the transition from his throwback offense to whatever scheme the next Georgia Tech coach used. Hardly any of his Tech players ran the triple-option in high school, Johnson noted. He made a good point.

But the questions were about talent, not fit. Johnson used his unique offense to forge teams greater the sum of their recruiting rankings. Johnson’s successor, Geoff Collins, already has the Yellow Jackets recruiting at a higher level. That suggests better things to come when his recruits begin arriving in 2020.

First, Tech must get through a transition year. It could be ugly.

Bill Connelly’s S&P+ statistical formula projects four victories for Tech with a last-place finish in the ACC Coastal Division. Only Louisville rates lower in the league. The Jackets are going to get clobbered by Clemson in the season opener. Georgia will beat them badly in the season closer.

In between, Tech will have only one sure win, The Citadel of the FCS. The Jackets should have a decent shot against South Florida and North Carolina at Bobby Dodd Stadium. It’s improbable that Tech wins more than four games, but some surprises are possible because the ACC looks to be down again.

There’s Clemson at the top with a huge gap to the rest. Connelly places five teams on the league’s third tier. The Jackets will play three of them: at Duke and at home against Pittsburgh and North Carolina. Those games are in October and November, after the Jackets have a chance to find their footing.

Three Tech opponents also will be breaking in new head coaches. To replace Mark Richt, Miami promoted defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, a career assistant. North Carolina got Mack Brown, who was presumed retired. Temple picked Ed Foley to succeed Collins after its initial hire, Diaz, headed back to Miami two weeks later.

Granted, those teams don’t have to make a coaching transition as dramatic as Tech’s. There isn’t much recent precedent for switching from an offense heavy on option runs to one that features lots of shotgun and probably will pass about half the time. Who knows how that will go?

Collins must fashion a line that can pass block and find a quarterback who can throw. Tech’s most experienced QB, Tobias Oliver, could be moving to defense. Lucas Johnson was a passer in high school but he hasn’t done it at Tech. Another QB candidate, James Graham, attempted one pass during his first season. At least the Jackets know they can run the ball.

I’m confident Collins will field a respectable defense. He’ has the track record. Collins was defensive coordinator at Mississippi State (2013-14) and Florida (2015-16). The national S&P rankings for those units were, in order, 14th, 22nd, seventh and fourth. Temple’s defenses ranked 40th and 24th when Collins was head coach, and he brought DC Andrew Thacker to Tech with him.

Collins will face tougher competition than he did at Temple, with lesser than he had at Mississippi State and Florida. But not many of Tech’s ACC opponents are expected to score a lot of points. Clemson’s offense is elite, of course. UNC is projected to rank 30th nationally in offensive S&P and Virginia Tech 36th. The projections for the Tech’s other five ACC opponents: 60th, 61st, 65th, 75th and 89th.

Tech’s offense is projected to rank 57th in S&P though, again, it’s hard to know what to expect with so many unknowns. The defense is projected to rank 102nd after it finished 110th in 2018. There are good reasons why the Jackets are expected to finish at the bottom of the Coastal.

Perhaps Collins gets his defense to overachieve and squeezes out just enough offense. That’s not likely to be enough to win at Miami and Virginia. It could be sufficient to to win at Temple and at home vs. South Florida, Pitt and N.C. State. Three wins against those six teams and another against The Citadel gets Tech to four victories.

It’s not easy to find a fifth victory for Tech. Maybe the Jackets can score a home upset  against Virginia Tech, which continues to bleed transfers. Four victories isn’t good, but it wouldn’t be so bad for a new coach forging a new identity for a program with limited talent. Help is on the way.

Collins has 13 commitments for the 2020 recruiting class. As of now, that group ranks fifth in the ACC and 14th nationally, according to 247Sports. If that recruiting ranking holds, it would be Tech’s highest since 2007. Collins, then a Tech assistant, helped recruit future stars Derrick Morgan, Morgan Burnett, Jonathan Dwyer and Joshua Nesbitt.

The highest ranked Jackets recruit for 2020 is four-star cornerback Miles Brooks. The last Jackets signee ranked higher was Justin Thomas, who spurned Alabama for Tech so he could play quarterback. He became one of Tech’s best QBs.

The Jackets don’t have a player as good as Thomas now. They also don’t have the offensive identity that allowed them to play above their heads. Tech does have a proven defensive coach running the show against some ACC foes with their own issues. That could make for a transition season that’s better than expected.