Tech should beat South Florida. If not, might be a while until Jackets top FBS foe

Georgia Tech’s football culture is built on effort. I know this because first-year coach Geoff Collins said it several times Tuesday. Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker later followed Collins to the podium and reiterated the point.

I think everyone saw evidence of that during Tech’s 38-point loss at Clemson. It’s a good sign for a program going through a radical restructuring. It’s also to be expected. Why wouldn’t the Yellow Jackets play hard? They were facing the No. 1 team in the country in the first game of the season.

I’m not trying to single out Collins. Every college football coach in the country has similar mantras about effort and competition. That stuff matters but, ultimately, it needs to result in victories. Effort culture becomes a winning culture only with, well, wins.

This week is a prime opportunity for Tech to get a “W.” South Florida comes to Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, fresh off a 49-0 home loss to Wisconsin. Tech is favored by six points. It’s only Week 2, but this feels like a potential turning point for the Jackets because it might be the only FBS game in which they are favored all season.

Next week Tech will defeat The Citadel, as Power 5 teams should do to FCS opponents. The following week the Jackets play at Temple, which still is pretty good after Collins left there for Tech. Then the Jackets play ACC rivals for seven consecutive weeks before finishing against Georgia.

ESPN’s Football Power Index projects the Jackets to lose all nine of those games. The highest winning probability among them is 44.3 percent against Pittsburgh at home on Nov. 2. The next-highest win probability is 35 percent at Temple.

Those are statistical probabilities, not certainties. The Jackets likely will improve. But I can believe that game against Pitt is Tech’s best chance for an ACC victory. I thought the Week 5 home game against North Carolina is another good chance for a Tech win until the Tar Heels opened with a victory over South Carolina.

The South Florida game seemed to be a toss-up for Tech. Then the Bulls were whipped by Wisconsin. Tech should win this week. Collins said the Jackets should feel no additional burden to do so for reasons that you can probably guess.

“There is an internal drive in this culture to battle and compete every single day,” he said.

I get it. At this stage it wouldn’t be wise for Collins to add additional importance to this game (or any other). But I say the Jackets really need to beat South Florida. There’s only so many times Collins can show his players video from losses and brag about their effort.

Tech has a good chance to win against South Florida (FPI puts it at 72.1 percent). Tech can run the ball. The Bulls gave up 234 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns to Wisconsin. The Jackets had Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence confused and intercepted him twice. South Florida showed little ability to pass against the Badgers.

The Jackets lost by 11 points at South Florida last season when Terrence Horne returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. That was the first of six consecutive South Florida victories against FBS opponents. The Bulls lost their final six games of the season by an average of 19 points. The 49-point loss to Wisconsin was the worst in South Florida’s 23-year history.

Charlie Strong’s successful coaching tenure at Louisville seems long ago. He flopped at Texas and now is trying to hang on to his job at South Florida. The Bulls are down. The Jackets can keep them there with a cleaner game than the one at Clemson.

Tech’s defense was OK, considering the competition. Clemson scored two TDs on short fields after Tech turnovers. Lawrence made some plays outside of the pocket and Travis Etienne had a 90-yard TD run when Tech defenders failed in their gap assignments. But neither South Florida nor any other team on Tech’s schedule has two skill players that good.

Tech still is trying to figure out what it can do offensively after being wedded to the triple-option for 11 years. Coordinator Dave Patenaude began the Clemson game with a run-heavy attack featuring his best running quarterback, Tobias Oliver. Patenaude said it was effective in part because Clemson was expecting a balanced offense like what he ran for Collins at Temple.

Tech quarterbacks James Graham and Lucas Johnson also played. Johnson looks to be the best passer among the three. But running is in Tech’s DNA and doing it a lot probably gives the best chance to win now.

South Florida certainly looks vulnerable to the run. Tech also seems up to the task of slowing the Bulls. Certainly Collins can get more buy-in for his culture of effort if the Jackets win this game.

“The attitude, the demeanor, the work, ethic—all of those things have been absolutely amazing,” Collins said.

I don’t doubt that. I also know that humans tend to respond better when hard work leads to good outcomes. In football, that means winning games.

I want to see the Jackets to earn a few victories this year. I like the idea of a team drastically transforming its identity and winning when no one knows what to expect. It’s a fresh and fun notion.

This week is key for Tech. The Jackets have a good chance to beat South Florida. If they don’t, it could be a while before they earn a victory against an FBS opponent.