This is one of those years Tech football will be better than you think

It’s easy to underestimate Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech teams, which is kind of the point.

The Yellow Jackets are built to make talent disadvantages null, that option attack pushing through pessimistic predictions. Johnson seems to take great pleasure in needling media types who get his team wrong. I’ve always liked that about him.

This season ACC media picked Tech to finish third in the league’s lesser division, the Coastal. What’s Johnson think?

“I go into every year thinking we have a chance to win all our games, and our goal is to win the Coastal Division and the ACC championship,” Johnson said before Tech opened camp this weekend. “I don’t see any reason we can’t do that if everything comes together and we stay healthy.”

At the risk of hearing a told-you-so from Johnson later, I see plenty of reasons why the Jackets won’t do that even if everything goes right. Yet I never fault any coach for being optimistic in the preseason because, if not now, when? I pay attention when the good vibes come from Johnson, who isn’t one for happy talk.

To be honest, there’s something about preseason camps that softens my usual cynicism. Everything still is possible and (usually) nothing bad has happened. But I’m clear-eyed when I predict a much better season than expected from Tech in 2018 after they were 5-6 in 2017.

As usual, that depends largely on Johnson forging his spread option into a machine. That didn’t happen in 2017 with inexperienced players. Nearly all those players are back, and I’m banking on Johnson getting the most out of them this time.

In many ways Tech’s offense was typically efficient in 2017. The glaring exceptions were gains on first downs and a lack of big plays. Related: The new quarterback, TaQuon Marshall, was green.

Marshall was a productive runner, but he didn’t pitch it to the A-backs often. He was an inaccurate passer -- the blocking was shaky at times, but so was Marshall’s pocket feel. Junior B-back KirVonte Benson looks like the real thing, but Tech can’t be explosive without a perimeter threat and at least a couple of big pass plays per game.

Maybe Marshall isn’t the guy to bring those elements into harmony. It’s a tough gig. But Johnson said: “Not worried about that position. There’s three guys who can play right now and may have more than that by the time the season is out.”

I’m convinced Tech’s offense will be significantly better. The special teams were atrocious last season, but Johnson said he has a plan to fix that, too. The defense was mediocre and might still be, but a new style could make a difference.

Nate Woody is the new defensive coordinator, and the talk is that he’ll have the Jackets playing more aggressively. Appalachian State walked that walk in Woody’s five seasons as its coordinator: Per Football Outsiders, his units had two top-30 finishes nationally in the combined rate of tackles for loss, passes defended and forced fumbles.

There may be a learning curve for Tech’s defenders, but at least there’s plenty of seniors among them. Woody plans to rotate in more bodies, and Johnson said he has enough of them.

“In the past, truthfully, I can’t say they didn’t want to play more guys sometimes,” Johnson said of previous coordinators. “We just didn’t have as many guys.”

The successful blueprint for Tech seems clear. More offensive possessions and better field position by way of disruptive plays from the defense and fewer foul-ups by special teams. Better decisions and accuracy by Marshall leading to more big-play chances for the A-backs and wide receivers.

If all that happens, the Jackets will have a chance in most every game. The results may not reflect it because the schedule is tough.

After a tune-up in the opener against Alcorn State, the Jackets figure to get no better than even odds to win the next two weeks at South Florida and Pitt. Their chances likely are much lower at Louisville and Virginia Tech (though player dismissals have weakened the Hokies). Clemson (home) and Georgia (away) are just too good.

Tech would do well to squeeze three victories out of those six games. Few will predict that, but then preseason expectations are based in large part on the previous year’s results. The 2018 Jackets might be viewed differently if the 2017 Jackets were luckier in close games.

In the opener, they blew a two-touchdown lead to Tennessee in the fourth quarter and lost by a point in the second overtime. Miami needed a lucky fourth-down catch for a one-point overtime win at home. Tech blew a 15-point second-half lead at Virginia, regained the advantage with three minutes left, then gave it back at the end.

It was a disappointing season, Johnson said more than once, before pivoting to the positive.

“Last year we were a couple plays away from winning eight or nine games, and then we’ve got a good nucleus coming back,” Johnson said.

This year the Jackets will have better luck, a better offense and a good-enough defense. Statistical projections put Tech at five victories. Bookmakers set the over/under win total at 5-1/2.

I say the Jackets win seven, make a bowl game and win one more.