Georgia Tech A-back Qua Searcy dives into the end zone for the winning touchdown at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016. Tech beat Georgia 28-27. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Tech and UGA in 2017: One down, one up

Georgia Tech outperformed expectations, which often happens. Georgia underperformed, which often happens. Neither had a great season, though Tech’s victory in Athens means that all Yellow Jackets will have a merry Christmas. Each finished 4-4 in an unassuming division. Each is bound for a bowl we’ll forget five minutes after it ends. (At least Tech gets to go to Florida.)

Today’s exercise is to look beyond postseason excursions to next season, which is something I know you folks – Georgia fans especially – have been doing since 3:15 p.m. on Nov. 26.

Georgia Tech: The schedule is tougher – Tennessee in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, assuming it’s ready, as opposed to Vanderbilt at the Flats. (Though Vandy did just beat Tennessee.) Also UCF in Orlando. And Clemson and Miami there, as opposed to here. Because Tech was technically the visiting team against Boston College in Dublin, the Jackets played three true ACC road games. They get the usual four next time.

The ACC Coastal is improving. Virginia Tech, 16-16 in conference play over Frank Beamer’s final four seasons, went 6-2 and took the division in Year 1 under Justin Fuente. Mark Richt and Bronco Mendenhall will likewise be in their second seasons at Miami and Virginia. Pittsburgh beat Clemson, which made the College Football Playoff, and Penn State, which just missed. (Though Pat Narduzzi must replace offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who left for LSU one season after succeeding Jim Chaney, who’d jumped to Georgia.)

Tech loses Justin Thomas, the best quarterback of Paul Johnson’s nine seasons here. Matthew Jordan led the Jackets to a road upset of Virginia Tech, but he’s not the passer Thomas is. They’re also losing B-back Marcus Marshall, their leading rusher the past two seasons. He’s transferring to James Madison. (Quarterback Vad Lee did the same after the 2013 season, clearing a position for Thomas. Tech went 11-3 in 2014.) Freshman Dedrick Mills is a bigger talent than Marshall; Mills also missed three games due to suspension.

After Tech beat Georgia in Athens for the third time in five tries, Johnson offered this little jibe: “Not bad for a bunch of 80th-ranked recruiting classes, huh?” No, it isn’t. Not that Tech under Johnson has had a string of 80th-ranked recruiting classes. According to the composite ratings of 247Sports, Tech’s signees under Johnson have ranked 49th, 41st, 42nd, 44th, 52nd, 76th, 56th, 44th and 59th nationally.

Recruiting doesn’t mean everything. But if Tech and Johnson can beat Georgia three times with Signing Day hauls averaging 51st nationally, how much better might the Jackets be with a run, say, of 35th-ranked classes? February 2017 doesn’t figure to ring any changes, though. Per 247, Tech’s commitment list ranks 61st nationally, 13th in the 14-team ACC.

Tech in 2017: Trending down.

Georgia: The Bulldogs’ commitment list for 2017 ranks third behind Alabama and Ohio State. If you’re coming off a season that included home losses to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Tech, that’s a good place to start. Four pledges are offensive linemen ranked among the nation’s top 100 players, which is better still.

With Nick Chubb and Sony Michel opting to stay in school, Georgia’s backfield again looks strong. So far, looks have deceived. The heralded freshman Jacob Eason has had nice moments but is 14th in the SEC in quarterback rating. Chubb ranks 10th among conference rushers, Michel 17th. That has something to do with Chaney, who may be overmatched, but more with a flimsy offensive front. You can hear Kirby Smart saying: “As God is my witness, I will never have a line like this again.”

The biggest issue facing this program – above and beyond the O-line – involves Smart himself. He clearly knows his football and is a demon recruiter; it’s less clear if he’ll become a real head coach. When the season began, he appeared tetchy. (He was that way on the sideline, too.) Come November, he seemed to be easing into the job. Then his team lost to Tech and got shunted to Memphis.

The 2017 schedule is more arduous, though almost anything would be: At Notre Dame, at Tennessee, at Vanderbilt, at Auburn, at Georgia Tech, plus Mississippi State in Athens and Florida you-know-where. Even so, the Bulldogs shouldn’t go 7-5 again. Georgia should never go 7-5.

This not just in: The SEC East isn’t murderer’s row. Tennessee’s window has slammed shut. There’s only so high Kentucky and Vandy and South-Carolina-sans-Spurrier and Missouri-minus-Pinkel can rise. Florida has claimed the division twice under Jim McElwain, but the feeling is that the Gators haven’t so much won as everyone else has lost. If Smart is up to the task, there’s no reason Georgia can’t take the division. But we’ve said that before.

Georgia in 2017: Trending up.

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