Georgia Tech should be wary of everyone — Kennesaw State included

When the Georgia Tech-Kennesaw State football match was made back in October 2014, the Yellow Jackets were on their way to their last special season under Paul Johnson. And the Owls were still in the womb, nearly a year away from making their first sanctioned option pitch.

Think of how that game looked back then: It was a pat-on-the-head kind of gesture, Johnson helping his former long-time assistant Brian Bohannon who was trying to get KSU off the ground. In ‘14, Tech would beat Georgia and take out Dak Prescott and Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl on the way to 11 wins. KSU was an amorphous blob.

Surely when this meeting would happen it would be a nice little story, but a mismatch seven years in the making between a long-storied program and the cute, plucky one 24 miles up I-75.

And my, now that the game is only days away, how the view has changed: The Jackets are 6-17 under coach Geoff Collins and are reeling, having just lost to one of those directional schools, Northern Illinois. Kennesaw State, employing the very option offense that was expelled from the Flats when Johnson retired in 2018, has quickly become a power player in the second-level FCS (Bohannon is 53-16 there).

Just the mere possibility of losing this game has to be terrifying for Tech, filled with worst kind of dreadful scenarios of a Paul Johnson acolyte coming back to upset the Jackets after they had renounced Johnson and his option football. Not saying it’s going to happen, but that’s a lot more realistic to picture now than it was in 2014.

Bohannon can picture it.

“I don’t think we’ve ever gone into a game we thought we couldn’t win. I don’t know why that should change now,” he said Tuesday.

This will be only the third-ever game against a FBS opponent for KSU —– it lost to Georgia State and Kent State — and its first against a Power 5 opponent. Saturday represents the rarest kind of opportunity for the Owls to share a field with an entrenched program in its own state and declare: Hey, look at us, we can play, too.

“I think we’re always searching for (recognition),” Bohannon said. “We want people to recognize what’s going on with Kennesaw State football. The stage will be the biggest one we’ve been on in a while. What a great opportunity for our program to be on this stage to show who we are and what we’re about.”

Bohannon was a part of Johnson’s staff at Georgia Southern, Navy and Tech, where he was the quarterback/B-back coach between 2008-12. He counts Johnson as his own personal Plato – “I would not be sitting here today without coach Johnson. I owe a ton to him,” he said. Although it’s not like he’s returning to Tech bogged down in syrupy sentiment. Like he said, connections are about people, not places, and all the coaches and players he worked with at Tech have long since scattered.

Tech fans of any standing at all will recognize the offense KSU is bringing to Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday. There may be tweaks here or there, but Bohannon remains a big believer in what he learned under Johnson.

“We do some things different, but fundamentally as far as the nuts and bolts, it still goes back to (Johnson’s philosophy) at the end of the day,” he said. “We want to line up and play fast and play hard and be tough, and we want to be able to run the football. I don’t know that has changed a lot.”

To be determined Saturday is whether KSU can stand up physically to an opponent that should enjoy a wealth of recruiting advantages. Also, Bohannon needs to see a lot more from his Owls than he did in their 10-point win over NAIA Reinhart in their opener. “The amount of missed assignments was off the charts; we were all over the place,” the coach said.

It’s all the possibilities littering the short road to this game that will keep Jackets people on edge. Collins already has lost once to a supposedly undermanned, option-based FCS school (2019, The Citadel, which ran for 320 yards that day). And in just the past week, precedents for an upset were everywhere – six FCS schools beat an FBS opponent.

There’s a message Bohannon has drilled into his players to take them beyond the presumed limits of a 6-year-old program. “We’ve always told our kids, our best is good enough,” he said.

That rings true more than could have been imagined in 2014. For this game arrives with some heft. By all rights it shouldn’t. But Tech is vulnerable. Kennesaw State is hungry. Always a dangerous combination.