Paul Johnson at his best when people expect worst

Paul Johnson seemingly is at his best when people are hurling insults, not roses. So with all of this projected misery at Georgia Tech, is it too early for him to put his feet up on the desk and light a stogie?

“When people say, ‘You’re really good and you’ll run right through this and run that through that,’ well, our guys historically have not handled that very well,” he said.

The Jackets went 3-9 last season, including 1-7 in the ACC. It was the worst football season at Tech since 1994, when coach Bill Lewis looked like a guy who had been plucked suddenly from the accounting department and dropped into a jet propulsion lab to redesign an engine.

If Johnson looked lost last year, it was only because he had never seen a team implode to that extent before, and it followed a season when the Jackets went 11-3, nearly upset unbeaten Florida State in the ACC title game and won the Orange Bowl. With quarterback Justin Thomas and an experienced offensive line returning, the logical assumption was: Tech will be good again.

“One of the hardest things in coaching is trying to keep guys grounded,” he said Saturday. “We’re not at a place where we’re going to have all these All-Americans and you can just reload. We have to do it with a blue collar and work ethic.”

Then came the crash. Tech lost lost nine of its last 10 games. Strangely, the only win came over Florida State, when the hand of God came down from the sky and said, “OK, enough pain,” as the Jackets blocked a field-goal attempt and returned it for a touchdown in the final seconds.

(The following week, Tech lost to Virginia and a voice in the heavens laughed again.)

So here’s the good news for Johnson: Everybody thinks his team stinks again.

The Jackets have been picked to finish sixth in the ACC Coastal Division. They’re picked behind two schools that changed coaches (Miami and Virginia Tech).

They’re picked behind Pitt.

They’re picked behind … Duke.

They’re not picked behind Virginia because, well, it’s a revenge game this season?

Las Vegas has put Tech’s over/under wins total at 6.5. Considering the schedule includes Mercer, Georgia Southern, Vanderbilt and Virginia, 6.5 ranks high on the projected misery index.

These are the kind of negative external forces that Johnson embraces.

Motivating players won’t be a problem. The odds are against the horrible run of injuries in 2015 — Tech lost at least five running backs, three for the entire season, who were expected to be major producers in the option offense — being repeated. A string of uncommon mistakes by Thomas (whose self-analysis included, “There were a lot of boneheaded plays”) likely also won’t be replicated. And the offensive line should be much better, centered by Freddie Burden, who in addition to dealing with an injury was struggling with the deteriorating health of his father (who died in December).

Can Tech bounce back? It’s more likely than not, especially given the Coastal seems wide open after North Carolina, the division’s best team.

I asked him if it’s fair to suggest he prefers it when people have low expectations of Tech.

“I think so,” he said. “If you’re competitive, it gets you going. That’s the nature of where we are. You’re surrounded by programs with double the budgets (as Tech’s). You have to have a chip on your shoulder to survive.”

Some people don’t like Johnson, either because they’re not dazzled by the option offense or they don’t like a coach who isn’t afraid to tell you what he thinks, especially when it’s not what you think. The world is full of thin-skinned folks.

That said, nothing suggested a Johnson-coached team would ever go 3-9 at Tech, even with injuries. In his first seven years, Tech has win totals of 9, 11, 6, 8, 7, 7 and 11 (including an ACC title and two Orange Bowl appearances).

Athletic Director Mike Bobinski, who gave Johnson a contract extension and a raise late in the 2014 season, said, “We recognize that last year was an anomaly. Coach Johnson has great confidence to make the adjustments necessary, and I have great confidence in that, because it was such an unusual, one-off year. It wasn’t symptomatic of a long slide. We were coming off an Orange Bowl championship for crying out loud.”

Johnson made two significant changes in the offseason. He put more emphasis on player leadership and accountability by implementing more team-building programs. He also changed a significant aspect of the strength-and-conditioning program, putting more emphasis on a player’s body fat index than overall weight.

One thing he won’t have to do is manage expectations.

Johnson even joked about the low expectations at the recent ACC media days: “I told somebody, you walk in the room and you look around to see who’s your wins, and I’m looking back at me.”

It’s just what he wants everybody to think.

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