The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are 6-4 (4-3 ACC) heading into Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. home game against the Virginia Cavaliers.

Tech didn’t quit, and now Paul Johnson has Yellow Jackets on right path

Win two of its final three games, which will include a bowl, and Georgia Tech will finish the 2018 season with a winning record. That’s after they started 1-3. But is a winning season really all the Yellow Jackets should expect? 

The better question, as always, is: according to whose expectations? Not Paul Johnson’s expectations, according to Paul Johnson. 

“My expectations were certainly not to be 6-4, I can tell you that,” Tech’s coach said Tuesday. “They never are.” 

Still, respect to the Jackets for not packing it in after losing their first three games against FBS foes. They also didn’t fade away after that farcical home loss to Duke. The Jackets responded by winning big at Virginia Tech with their backup quarterback, holding off North Carolina for another road win and finally besting Miami. 

The Jackets (6-4, 4-3 ACC) are touchdown favorites at home Saturday against Virginia (7-3, 4-2). They aren’t likely to win at Georgia, but an eight-win season is realistic, and those aren’t commonplace at The Flats. Seven wins doesn’t sound exciting but, considering last season’s 5-6 finish and the start to this year, it would mean something. 

I think Tech is back on the upswing with Johnson as coach, for reasons I will detail later. But would seven or eight wins be enough to quiet those critics in Johnson’s fan base who didn’t like that contract extension he got last winter? Would it inspire confidence that Johnson still is the coach to keep Jackets football relevant? 

Before the 2017 season, Johnson said he would be remembered more fondly after he’s gone. Maybe not if he produces more 5-6 seasons. History, non-revisionist, shows that was the third losing season in 10 for Johnson after the program had none in the 11 seasons before his hiring. 

Johnson used his “revisionist history” line after the Jackets started this season 1-3. His argument: some Tech backers had an inflated idea of what the program had accomplished in the years between Bobby Dodd hanging up his whistle and Johnson’s hiring in 2008. 

That’s all history. What matters now is whether the customers, including the alumni, are happy with the direction of Jackets football. I’m not among that constituency, but I say there’s strong evidence that Johnson has righted the program. 

At the top of the list: Johnson’s spread option offense is a machine again. Despite some key injuries, the Jackets rank 19th in the Football Outsiders’ offensive efficiency metric (adjusted for opponent and game situation). They ranked 44th or worse in the past three seasons after they were lower than 41st just once from 2008 through 2013. 

Most of the offensive talent is set to return in 2019. That includes KirVonte Benson and quarterback Tobias Oliver, who looks more than ready to take over from senior TaQuon Marshall. 

Nate Woody’s hiring as defensive coordinator has paid early dividends. The Jackets haven’t allowed many big plays and have forced a lot of turnovers, which is a good profile to complement Johnson’s offense. It would be even better if Tech could get more third-down stops. 

As for recruiting, everyone knows Johnson doesn’t attract the best prospects. He relies on his system to cut more talented foes down to size, but he does need a certain amount of good players to compete in the ACC. 

In his season preview, SB Nation’s Bill Connelly noted that Johnson’s 2018 class is his highest-rated since 2012. That raises Tech’s three-year recruiting average to a level that’s meant a top-35 rating for team efficiency under Johnson. 

The future looks promising for the Jackets. The present looks a lot better since they’ve salvaged what looked like another lost season. Honestly, I didn’t see it coming. 

After the Pittsburgh loss, I wrote that the Jackets were “worse than I could have imagined.” It’s not the only time I’ve been wrong about them. The Jackets been hard to figure, but their mental toughness isn’t in question. 

“You can’t quit after three games,” Johnson said, not counting the opening victory against FCS Alcorn State. 

The Jackets didn’t quit. Now they are favored to win seven games, realistically can win eight and are alive for nine. Whether that’s good enough is subjective, but to gauge fair expectations, we can look at some objective data, including the market. 

According to the USA Today coaching salaries database, Johnson’s 2018 total pay (about $3 million) ranks seventh among 14 ACC head coaches. It’s a little trickier to compare football budgets because of different accounting methods among schools. But a report before last season, based on federal tax filings, placed Tech’s football budget ($17.4 million) above only Wake Forest in the ACC. 

Those figures don’t include spending on facilities or money paid directly to coaches from media partners. I’m guessing including them would increase the spending disparity between Tech and its league peers. AD Todd Stansbury is seeking to boost football spending — the locker rooms are renovated, and Tech just announced it’s raised $50 million of its $120 million goal for athletics. 

The market says Tech football is where it should be. Judge Johnson against his previous success, which includes four division titles, and this season is the second in the past four to be a disappointment. 

But Johnson has taken Tech places that Chan Gailey and George O’Leary didn’t, and that Bobby Ross did only once.  Any fair assessment of Johnson must acknowledge that, if there are higher expectations for Tech football, then Johnson created them. 

That’s not to say Tech backers shouldn’t want more. There’s nothing wrong with aiming higher. If the Jackets spend more and dream bigger in football, there is enough talent in this state and those bordering it for a high-profile coach to build something bigger. 

But there’s also nothing wrong with the football status quo, if that’s what Tech’s advocates want. That might mean the Jackets are pretty good most years and deliver the occasional great campaign. Upset victories over their Athens adversaries are always welcome, of course.

(Johnson is 3-7 against Georgia, with all the victories away, something the Bulldogs surely will have in mind Nov. 24). 

A winning season is within reach for the 2018 Jackets. That would be real progress under the circumstances. I think it’s a sign that Johnson has Tech football back on the right path.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.