Saturday will be something of an empty day for Georgia Tech fans, but also a reminder of what the Yellow Jackets faced this season. Three Tech opponents will be playing for either the ACC or SEC championship – Clemson and Miami in the ACC title game and archrival Georgia plays Auburn at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the SEC championship. It’s just the second time since the ACC went to a two-division format in 2005 that Tech will have played three of the participants in the ACC and SEC championship games. (The first time was 2011, when Tech played Virginia Tech, Clemson and Georgia.)
For good measure, Jackets fans pulling for former Tech coach Brian Bohannon and Kennesaw State will recognize the Owls’ opponent – Jacksonville State, Tech’s week 2 opponent, and the No. 3 seed in the FCS playoff.
It will presumably be no consolation for Tech that it may finish the season in the top 10 of at least one category – strength of schedule. Going into this weekend’s games, Tech’s schedule was ranked the eighth strongest in FBS by the Sagarin ratings and sixth by Football Outsiders.
By both indices, the 2017 schedule was the toughest that Tech has faced in coach Paul Johnson’s 10 seasons. By the Sagarin ratings, Tech played four top-20 teams –No. 2 Clemson, No. 8 Georgia, No. 12 Miami and No. 17 Virginia Tech, losing to the Tigers, Bulldogs and Hurricanes and upsetting the Hokies.
Tech, itself ranked No. 39, played three more Sagarin top-50 teams – Wake Forest (30), Duke (37) and Pitt (47), defeating the Demon Deacons and Panthers while losing to the Blue Devils.
Given the relative strength of Clemson, Georgia and Miami, it comes as no surprise that the Jackets lost all three. And, while the timing and manner of the Duke loss were pretty miserable, the Blue Devils were, statistically speaking, a decent team that on paper might have been expected to beat Tech at home, though perhaps not by 23 points.
As it turned out, the Jackets caught Pitt at the right time, giving the Panthers a 35-17 defeat in the fourth week of the season. Pitt found its form later on, ending the season with one of the biggest upsets of the season, beating then-No. 2 Miami.
The losses to Virginia (No. 67) and Tennessee (No. 94) are less understandable in the context of the Sagarin rankings. Both were away from Bobby Dodd Stadium and both were determined in the final possession.
One of the big challenges hanging over Tech going forward is that the difficulty of the challenge may not be changing anytime soon.
Clemson’s ranking in the final AP poll in the past, starting in 2012: 11, 8, 15, 2, 1. The Tigers don’t look like they’re going anywhere. At present, out of all 14 teams in the ACC, Tech has the rawest deal with its permanent crossover partner. The Tigers are beatable, but have looked like they’re on a different plane in the last three meetings with Tech.
In coach Kirby Smart’s second year, Georgia looks like it could rule the SEC East for years to come.
In Mark Richt, Miami looks like it has finally found the coach who can keep the Hurricanes consistently in the top 25 (or higher).
While the Jackets have upset the Hokies two years in a row, Virginia Tech looks like a perennial top-25 team with coach Justin Fuente.
That’s four teams out of the 12-game schedule that could reasonably be assumed to be in the top 25 (or higher) on an annual basis.
Further, North Carolina should bounce back from a down year, as should Pitt. Duke has won three of the past four against Tech. Virginia, with coach Bronco Mendenhall at the helm, has held the Jackets under 225 rushing yards in each of the past two years. Clemson is the only other team that can make that claim. (Georgia almost can.)
In short, of the seven games that Tech plays annually, each presents a legitimate pitfall, and in at least three of the cases, pitfall doesn’t adequately describe the challenge. The days of Tech winning 10 in a row against Duke or five in a row against North Carolina, as the Jackets did not so long ago, appear over.
The ACC has been steadily gaining strength since Johnson’s hire, and Tech itself has been trying to keep pace with facilities improvements to aid recruiting. Since Johnson’s arrival, the athletic department has built an indoor practice facility, renovated the weight room and remodeled the lobby of the football office. The locker room will be renovated over the offseason. The change from Russell Athletic to Adidas as apparel provider is expected to give another lift in the Jackets’ recruiting efforts.
However, the race never stops. The next steps after the locker-room project are additions to recruiting staff. Because, while Tech’s schedule was a bear this season, it might be even tougher in 2018. Besides the aforementioned permanent seven games, Tech goes on the road to play Louisville in its rotating game against the Atlantic and also plays USF, No. 23 in the AP poll, on the road.