So now it’s about football. It’s not about the Irish culture or, “How was your bus tour?” or, “What do you think about hurling?”
Traveling to a foreign land for an otherwise normal football game tends to throw coaches into a tizzy because they’re creatures of habit and they embrace structure and order, not disrupted schedules and seven-and-a-half hour flights over an ocean for a game that may set the tone for the season.
Georgia Tech opens the season Saturday against Boston College at Aviva Stadium, a venue normally reserved for rugby and soccer. It’s not just a season opener and it’s not even just a conference game. Coach Paul Johnson is coming off his worst season as a head coach since his first year at Navy in 2002. The Jackets are coming off their worst season since the Great Bill Lewis Plague of ‘94 swept across North Ave. There’s also the uncertainty of what a new athletic director is going to think about the state of things.
Tech can’t afford to lose its first game, even if it is just the first game. B.C. is coming off an even worse season than Georgia Tech, going 0-8 in the ACC, so it follows that losing to the Eagles would not project well for a team or a coach that must play Clemson, Miami, at Pitt, at North Carolina, at Virginia Tech and at Georgia in 2016.
Johnson said recently he hoped his players would be “mature enough and experienced enough to understand the importance of the game.” But he wasn’t sure. “There are a lot of distractions, so if you want to be distracted, you can be easily distracted on this trip.”
Following the team’s lone practice in Dublin Thursday at the Lansdowne Rugby Club, he still seemed uncertain. “It’s a little different with the travel and everything, but both teams have the same thing. We just have to take care of our business and play. Early in the season it’s usually turnovers and special teams that will get you beat faster than anything else.”
The Jackets went 3-9 last season, including 1-7 in the ACC. (Scientists still haven’t solved the mystery of that upset over Florida State.) But in eight seasons under Johnson, Tech is 62-44 overall and 38-26 in the ACC with one conference title. During that same period, Boston College is 47-55 overall and 26-38 in the ACC. The Eagles have had three head coaches since Tom O’Brien left for North Carolina State after 2006: Jeff Jagodzinski (fired after interviewing for another job without permission); Frank Spaziani (fired after four years) and Steve Addazio (entering his fourth season).
Addazio’s teams struggle offensively. That shouldn’t be a problem this season for Tech. The Jackets were a mess last season, largely because of injuries to running backs, offensive line issues and turnovers.
Johnson views the year as an aberration, not the start of some trend. We’re about to find out.
Tech brought all 111 players with them on the trip, even though 30 to 40 won’t play. The game also will be unusual in that local fans may not know when to cheer. European crowds tend to be more drawn to the pageantry of the event — marching bands and cheerleaders — than American football fans.
Johnson said the trip “has been a good experience” for his players. “They see different things and different customs. They get a little awareness of what Ireland is about. It’s not like they’re on vacation, but hopefully it’ll be something they remember.”
But the outcome is what will linger through this season.
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