Georgia Tech’s challenge - staying really good

When last it played, Georgia Tech stamped itself as one of the absolute best teams in the land by routing Mississippi State, which had been ranked No. 1 only 6 ½ weeks earlier, in the Orange Bowl. The Jackets would finish ranked No. 7 by the coaches and No. 8 by the Associated Press, marking the second time since Bobby Dodd retired after the 1966 season they’d graced the Top 10 of both final polls.

Meaning: Only twice in 48 years had coaches/journalists looked on Tech and thought, “That’s one of the absolute best teams in the land.” If the Jackets are never awful – there has been one losing season since Bill Lewis, who had three in three tries and whose name is never mentioned – rarely are they top-shelf.

They ascended to that exalted tier last year. On Thursday night against Alcorn State, they’ll take the first step in the attempt to stay there. The history cited above tells us it won’t be easy, and if you’re not one for numerical precedent, there’s the expert testimony of Dave Braine.

On Nov. 15, 2005, Braine – once a football coach and then the Jackets’ athletic director – said: “Georgia Tech can win nine or 10 games (in a season), but they will never do it consistently.” Given that he spoke those words at a press conference announcing a contract extension for coach Chan Gailey, this struck many as a concession speech.

Harrumphed Taz Anderson, the Atlanta entrepreneur who was a captain under Dodd: “I’m disappointed Georgia Tech would expect mediocrity in anything. We certainly don’t teach it in architecture or chemistry or engineering. It’s kind of hard to build half a bridge.”

Being oddly timed, however, didn’t render Braine’s words false. In its history, Tech has had nine 10-win seasons (two since Braine’s proclamation); Mark Richt has had nine in 14 seasons at Georgia. It was that inherent imbalance that Braine referenced when he called Tech the third-toughest job – after Army and Notre Dame – in the nation.

Over the final four games off the 2014 season, Tech played it as well as it has at any time – here we include the 1990 national championship run under Bobby Ross – since Dodd. The Jackets flattened Clemson. They beat Georgia in Athens. They came within two points of then-undefeated Florida State on a neutral field. They trampled Mississippi State. Were you a Tech fan, you might well have thought, “This is as good as it gets.”

There’s a chance it was. Fueled by talent inherited from Gailey, Paul Johnson’s second Tech team went 11-3 and won the 2009 ACC title. With most of the stars gone to the NFL, his third Tech team went 6-7. Asked Monday if he felt these Jackets were more apt to sustain success, Johnson said: “I don’t know that there’s a whole lot of difference. Hopefully our quarterback won’t break his arm in the sixth game, which happened in 2010.”

Actually, Joshua Nesbitt’s injury was suffered in the ninth game, by which time the Jackets had already lost to Kansas (yikes), to North Carolina State and to Clemson. But Johnson’s greater point holds: In 2010, Tech could go only as far as its quarterback could lift them; in 2015, the same figures to be true.

Johnson: “You can’t control all those factors (meaning injuries) … I don’t know that you ever get into – anywhere, really – where it’s just a reload where you’ve got players falling out of the windows and as soon as one guy goes, there are five more All-Americans ready to step in.”

Maybe at Alabama it works that way. Maybe at Ohio State, at least with quarterbacks. Not at Georgia Tech. In February, Tech compiled its highest-rated signing class, as adjudged by Rivals, under Johnson. His best ranked 39th nationally, eighth among ACC teams. There’s a reason a former AD called this the third-toughest job in college coaching, and that reason has a name – calculus.

Georgia Tech got really good last season because of the galvanizing powers of quarterback Justin Thomas. He’s back. Most every other player who touched the ball is gone. He’d better not break anything in the sixth game. Or the ninth game. Or any game.