Looking back on Georgia Tech’s 2016 season

Head coach Paul Johnson of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets hoists the TaxSlayer Bowl trophy as Dedrick Mills #26 looks on after the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at EverBank Field on December 31, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

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Head coach Paul Johnson of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets hoists the TaxSlayer Bowl trophy as Dedrick Mills #26 looks on after the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at EverBank Field on December 31, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

The college football season was more than a month away. In a hotel ballroom in Charlotte, N.C., Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson met the media at the ACC Kickoff on July 21, a session perhaps most memorable for his seemingly prepared rebuke of a reporter’s question about Clemson and Florida State distancing themselves from the rest of the ACC.

“Really?” Johnson asked. “We’re 5-4 against Clemson and 3-2 against Florida State. What distance is that?”

Later, though, he made a comment about his team’s prospects that was as familiar as it has been accurate.

“We’ve still got to play the games, but I think they’ve got a chance to be better than people think,” he said.

At the time, on the heels of Tech’s 3-9 disaster in 2015, the graduation of several key defensive starters and questions on the offensive line, “people” were pegging Tech to win six regular-season games, possibly seven. In the ACC preseason media poll, Tech was picked sixth out of seven teams in the ACC Coastal, ahead of only Virginia.

Time has proven Johnson correct again. Compared to expectations, the Jackets’ season was quite commendable, ending Saturday with a 33-18 win over Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Their 9-4 record gave Tech just its 10th nine-win season since Bobby Dodd’s retirement after the 1966 season, four of them under Johnson’s leadership. The Jackets won six of their final seven games.

The team finished in fifth place in the Coastal, one spot ahead of the preseason forecast, but was a tipped pass away (in the Pittsburgh game) from sharing second place. Regardless, Tech once again outperformed its preseason ACC forecast.

Saturday, the Wildcats became Tech’s third SEC conquest of the season, a team that has out-recruited (by the measure of recruiting rankings) by a comfortable margin and has a larger fan base.

“3-0 in the SEC East, got Tennessee next,” Johnson said after the game, referring to the 2017 season opener against the Volunteers in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “Hopefully we can take this and build on it.”

Interestingly, Tech’s metrics-based rankings in the ESPN power index and the website Football Outsiders have stayed steadily in the 40’s and 50’s throughout the season. (Tech spiked to 60 by Football Outsiders after getting annihilated by North Carolina Nov. 5) It would suggest that Tech’s statistical performance would not be expected to produce nine wins. That speaks to the nature of the team, which Johnson has often praised for its perseverance and ability to find ways to win.

“We were fortunate to make some plays when we had to have them,” Johnson said after Saturday’s game. “We hit a few more big plays than they did. That was probably the difference in the game.”

Against Kentucky, the game shifted on two 4th-and-1 plays on successive possessions, one that Tech’s defense stopped inside its 10-yard line and another that the Tech offense converted at its 15.

“They played better,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “They executed better. They deserved to win the game.”

That essence of the team starts with quarterback Justin Thomas, whose savvy and playmaking ability rescued the Jackets particularly against Boston College and Duke. Tech’s defense improved over the course of the season, finding an identity first in not giving up big plays and later in producing turnovers in critical moments, memorably so in wins over Virginia Tech and Georgia. A-back Clinton Lynch, who would have ended up at Georgia State had a spot in the 2014 freshman class not opened up for him in the final days before signing day, touched the ball only 53 times all season, but scored eight touchdowns and averaged 17.1 yards per touch. The offensive line, centered by three-year starter Freddie Burden with rising star Parker Braun at left guard, turned into a strength.

Tech took advantage of good health, some of its best special-teams play in recent seasons, fateful bounces and strong leadership.

The season could have turned out differently with ease. Despair ran high in the fan base after a three-game losing streak dropped the Jackets to 3-3. College football being the fickle game it is, a five-win season would have been a reasonable outcome. Wins over Boston College, Duke and Georgia were all pulled out in the final minutes. Had those results been different – and perhaps one play in each game out of might have been all that was required out of those games’ combined 369 snaps, not counting special-teams plays – Tech fans would undoubtedly look upon the season through a different lens.

However, the happy thousands who lingered in EverBank Field Saturday as the Jackets held aloft the Ash Verlander Champions Trophy – named for a longtime Gator Bowl official, Jacksonville community leader and Tech grad who enrolled at the age of 15 – were quite glad to not have to do so.

As national attention is directed generally at only the teams in the highest echelon, and this week specifically at the College Football Playoff, Tech’s 2016 team will largely be forgotten.

Tech players and supporters, though, will likely cherish the 13-game run, begun near the Dublin Bay and completed a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean. There wasn’t much of a run to play for the ACC title – the unchanging objective –but it wasn’t bad.

“Everything has to come to an end one day,” Thomas said, speaking more of his career than the season. “Happy it ended like this.”