Of course Georgia Tech can beat Georgia on Saturday at Sanford Stadium (Noon, SEC Network; News 95.5 and AM-750 WSB). Choose your own cliché: That’s why they play the game, the Yellow Jackets just need to execute, crazy things can happen in rivalries (and they have in this one).
Still, everyone knows Tech isn't likely to make it three wins in a row in Athens. That includes Jackets coach Paul Johnson, who said his team "will have to play close to perfect" to win. It's to Johnson's benefit to say so, but there is wide agreement with his sentiment.
Bookmakers made Georgia a 17-point favorite on the opening line. Tech is getting 6-to-1 odds on the money line, which is an implied win probability of about 14 percent.
The advanced metrics say bettors are giving the Jackets too much credit. SB Nation’s S&P formula puts their chances of winning at eight percent with a projected margin of 25 points. ESPN’s Football Power Index says Tech has a 9.3 percent chance to win.
Numbers are useful but, to use one more cliché, you can’t measure heart. The emotional stakes are high whenever Tech and Georgia play. For this meeting, Tech’s seniors are looking to go undefeated at Sanford Stadium and their Georgia counterparts are under pressure to avoid it.
I have no idea how such intangible factors will impact the game, but talent usually wins out. The Bulldogs have more of it than Tech, which is typical, but now they also have more than most any college team. Thus, Tech is a heavy underdog.
But — sorry, one more cliché — the Jackets have been in this position before and beat Georgia. Here are three tangible ways I think they can give themselves a realistic shot to do it again.
1. Stay on schedule
When evaluating their teams, coaches divide every play into “wins” and “losses” when evaluating their teams. Plays that gain a certain percent of yards toward a first down keep the team “on schedule.” Manageable down-and-distance is the goal for the offense, while the defense tries to prevent it.
Per SB Nation, Tech’s offense ranks No. 3 nationally in success rate (garbage time excluded). They don’t often need many yards to convert third downs and rarely have three-and-outs. That ability, plus marvelous punter Pressley Harvin, means that even if opponents stop Tech from scoring they can find themselves backed up near their end zone all day.
Those factors should be a concern for Georgia. The Bulldogs rank No. 64 in opponent success rate. Foes regularly create short-yardage situations against Georgia, which isn’t good at stopping them. We saw how that played out at LSU.
Tech isn’t as physical running the ball as the Tigers, but the option can mitigate physical disadvantages by getting the ball on the perimeter. The Jackets can patiently grind out long drives against the Bulldogs. Do that, and their long odds of winning get shorter.
2. Be explosive
After a three-year slump, Johnson has his offense operating at a high level again. The Jackets are ultra-efficient both running and passing, and they finish drives with touchdowns at a high rate.
The one persistent weakness has for Tech has been a lack of big rushing plays. It’s great that Tech is so efficient, but Georgia is going to put up points. It will be difficult for Tech to keep up if it can’t run for yards in big chunks sometimes.
It won’t be easy because Georgia’s defense has been excellent at limiting big plays. The option is a different challenge, though. More than once Georgia coach Kirby Smart said his defenders need good “eye control” more than once. His defenders must watch the ball (and the cut blocks) while not getting taken in by all the misdirection or play-action.
One slip-up and Tech ballcarriers or pass-catchers are running free. That hasn't happened as often for the Jackets this season, but they have big-play threats. Tops among them: quarterbacks TaQuon Marshall and Tobias Oliver and A-back Qua Searcy, who scored the game-winning TD at Georgia in 2016.
3. Create havoc
This brings us to Tech’s defense. It’s better, but the amount of improvement may be a bit exaggerated. The Jackets create a lot of turnovers and limit big plays, but that’s pretty much the end of the list of things they are very good at doing.
Georgia’s offense is good at most everything, including ball control. The Bulldogs will oblige if Tech’s defense wants to slow play it while guarding against big plays. That’s why I think, to have a chance, Tech’s defense will need to press the issue and create turnover opportunities.
As mentioned, Tech has recorded a lot of takeaways but some of that is the result of good luck. Tech has created a very high number of turnovers relative to their “Havoc Rate,” defined by Football Outsiders as percentage of plays with a tackle for loss, forced fumble or pass defended. The Jackets have recovered 12 of 20 fumbles, including 10 that they didn’t force, and have 12 interceptions to 25 passes defended.
The Jackets rank just 110th in Havoc Rate, suggesting they've been fortunate to get 24 takeaways (ninth-most in FBS). The best way for a defense to create its own turnover luck is to sack the quarterback, but Tech hasn't done that much. This might be the game for coordinator Nate Woody to turn up the heat with blitzes and generate more plays that create takeaway chances.