The UGA game is huge for Tech — and Paul Johnson

Georgia Tech is 7-4. That’s enough to assure that Paul Johnson will coach the Yellow Jackets for another year. (Assuming he wants to keep coaching. There are whispers of retirement, which I don’t buy.) But Tech has one regular-season game to go, and its effect on Tech and Johnson could be massive.

The difference between 7-5 with an upset of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and not much else and 8-4 with a closing win over Georgia would be the difference between an uptick and a resurgence. Nosing back above .500 after last season’s 3-9 means the Jackets, who were 3-3 in mid-October, haven’t fallen to pieces. The slide has been arrested. If not a great thing, it’s at least a good one.

I’ve never believed Todd Stansbury, the Tech grad named Tech’s athletic director, would do as Mike Bobinski, whom Stansbury replaces, just did at Purdue — show up and fire the football coach. (Stansbury’s official start date at the Flats is Monday.) And Johnson is not, to put it mildly, Darrell Hazell. Johnson won the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31, 2014. Hazell was 9-33 at Purdue.

Given the timetable, next season has always seemed the key time for Johnson vis-à-vis his new boss. Stansbury would take his first year on on the job and, as a football man, assess the football being played before him. On paper, next year looks harder than this.

Tech opens with Tennessee at Mercedes-Benz Stadium — though the Volunteers, who just yielded 863 yards rushing in victories over Kentucky and Missouri, might surrender 1,000 against the Jackets — and must visit Central Florida, Miami and Clemson. (The Vols, Hurricanes and Tigers will have new quarterbacks.) The Jackets get North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and Georgia at home. There’s no Boston College, no Mercer, no Georgia Southern. There will also be no Justin Thomas, who will exit as the best player Johnson has signed at Tech.

A 7-5 regular season wouldn’t be a springboard into what appears a more difficult 2017 schedule. An 8-4 that includes a win over Georgia would be. As we know, the Tech-Georgia game is always bigger for the Jackets than the Bulldogs. A Tech rooter cannot sing his team’s fight song without making mention of the hated mutts. Tech supporters hate Georgia in a way that Georgia hasn’t hated Tech since Vince Dooley arrived in Athens and started swatting the Jackets as a matter of course.

When Dooley was hired, Tech led the series 27-26. (There had been five ties.) Georgia now leads 65-40. The Bulldogs have won 39 of the past 52 games. That’s not much of a rivalry, especially if you’re the team that has taken three of every four games over the past half-century. By way of contrast, Auburn has won 21 of the past 52 Iron Bowls despite facing Bear Bryant and Nick Saban.

Dooley was named Georgia’s coach on Dec. 3, 1963. Tech moved to leave the SEC on Jan. 24, 1964. In the years since, George O’Leary is the only Tech coach to beat Georgia three times. Bud Carson, Pepper Rodgers, Bill Curry and Bobby Ross did it twice each. Chan Gailey worked six years and didn’t do it once. Johnson famously did it in Year 1 and again in Year 7. Both were major upsets staged in Athens. This game will also be played in Athens. It would not, however, be a major upset.

Georgia is 7-4 overall and 4-4 in its conference, same as Tech. The Jackets haven’t beaten anybody as good as Auburn, but they haven’t lost to anybody as bad as Vanderbilt. (Indeed, Tech beat the Commodores 38-7.) Even before the Bulldogs slid to 4-4, the belief in some Tech circles was that this year, judging by relative talent, marked the Jackets’ best chance to beat Georgia in nearly a decade.

Much of Johnson’s reputation as a slayer of giants can be traced to those two victories over Georgia: The first came over a team ranked No. 1 in preseason, the second against the nation’s No. 9 team as rated by the College Football Playoff committee. These Bulldogs are in transition. Tech is essentially the same as it has been every year under Johnson — better on offense than defense, quirky enough to give a more talented team fits.

As we speak, Johnson’s constituency isn’t sure what to make of the coach it once revered. Since 2009, his Jackets have won more than eight games only in the 11-3 Orange Bowl season of 2014. Was that the exception that proves the rule? The past two home games — against Duke and Virginia — have seen Bobby Dodd Stadium conspicuously unfilled.

If you’re a new AD evaluating an inherited coach, do you log such evidence and wonder if this is the guy to keep steering your flagship program? Do you think, “This isn’t awful, but couldn’t we do better?” Or do you arrive just in time to celebrate a victory between the hedges and shout, “Darn tootin’ he’s our man”?

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