5 things to know about Georgia Tech-Central Florida

Georgia Tech players celebrate with fans after the 16-13 win over Florida State in the season opener Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, at Doak Campbell Stadium on Bobby Bowden Field in Tallahassee, Fla. (Don Juan Moore/Character Lines)

Credit: Don Juan Moore

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Georgia Tech players celebrate with fans after the 16-13 win over Florida State in the season opener Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, at Doak Campbell Stadium on Bobby Bowden Field in Tallahassee, Fla. (Don Juan Moore/Character Lines)

Credit: Don Juan Moore

In the wake of its attention-grabbing upset of Florida State last Saturday in its season opener, Georgia Tech can now take an even bigger step. The Yellow Jackets open the home schedule Saturday against No. 14 Central Florida, which has merely won 35 of 39 games in the past three years. Tech has not beaten a higher-ranked opponent since 2015 (No. 9 Florida State). A heady afternoon awaits coach Geoff Collins and his team.

1. Test No. 2 for Jeff Sims

In his second career start, freshman quarterback Jeff Sims will face a different sort of challenge in UCF. The Knights adhere to a tight man-coverage pass defense that enabled them to tie for third last season nationally in passes defended. UCF broke up or intercepted one of every 5.6 passes attempted by its opponents last season, and its 52.4% opponent completion percentage was tied for eighth lowest in the country.

For the sake of context, Florida State successfully defended one of every 8.5 passes last season and opponents completed 61.1% of its passes.

“So the soft, intermediate throws, they’re not going to give those up,” offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said. “They’re going to contest all throws. A lot like our defense, they 're going to be up playing a lot of press coverage."

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It is undoubtedly a comfort to Patenaude that Sims isn’t showing signs of self-satisfaction. Collins said that, on Sunday, Sims was the first player to the football offices for meetings and then was first to practice later that day. Patenaude said that, on Monday, Sims stopped by his office during the day to get an early start on UCF.

“That’s the kind of mentality that you have to have to be elite,” Patenaude said.

2. Different feel at the stadium

With attendance capped at 11,000 for social-distancing purposes, the Jackets will be playing before their smallest home crowd since at least 1948 and likely longer. The Tech media guide lists attendance figures for games back through 1949, with the smallest home crowd in that span listed at 17,631 (a 1980 loss to Navy). The average in 1949 was 32,500.

Tailgating has also been prohibited for the UCF game, and fans will be required to wear masks.

Also, the band and spirit teams (including Buzz) will perform solely in the stands, as ACC protocol limits field access to players, coaches, support staff and other essential personnel. The band will perform in the stands, distanced from each other, with about 150 pieces. (Because of the spacing, only half of the band can play, and members will rotate games.)

Band members will perform with covers over their instruments' bells to restrict droplet spread and also wear masks with slits. The band will perform before the game and at halftime. If you’re wondering, the band won’t march in the stands.

“We’re just standing still,” said band director Christopher Moore, in his 26th year. “We’re a standing band.”

3. Rougher challenge for Tech defense

Georgia Tech was effective in disrupting FSU quarterback James Blackman, who started out hot (7-for-9 for 76 yards and a touchdown in his first two drives) before pressure and coverage undid him the rest of the game (16-for-34 for 122 yards and an interception). The Jackets' three sacks were as many as they had in any ACC game last year, when they averaged 1.4 per game, but were accomplished against an offensive line that was inexperienced to begin with and then suffered injuries to four of its members.

Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker, who rotated no fewer than 10 linemen, praised the play of ends Sylvain Yondjouen and Jordan Domineck and tackle Ja’Quon Griffin for their unsung play as end Curtis Ryans capitalized with two sacks and two forced fumbles. The defense constrained Blackman despite usually relying on four-man pass rushes, not needing blitz help, which was not the case last year.

“We looked different on the defensive front,” Thacker said.

UCF likely also looks different to Thacker than Florida State. The Knights finished second last year in FBS in total offense and have eight returning starters on that side, including quarterback Dillon Gabriel, all-purpose back Otis Anderson and three offensive linemen.

UCF plays at a fast tempo, which can be fatiguing physically and mentally. Thacker said that collectively shrinking the pocket as opposed to winning one-on-one matchups will be an emphasis.

“We’ve got to create pressure with a collective depth chart with pushing up the pocket, we’ve got to pick and prod when we can pressure them,” he said.

4. Tech could have lots of eyeballs

Tech and Collins have a significant opportunity for exposure Saturday. The Jackets will play at 3:30 p.m. on ABC (WSB-TV in Atlanta), and other competing games are not particularly juicy – Appalachian State at Marshall (CBS) and Florida Atlantic at Georgia Southern (ESPN) at 3:30 p.m., The Citadel at Clemson (ACC Network) and Troy at Middle Tennessee State (ESPN2) at 4 p.m. Besides the U.S. Open, the main challenger for eyeballs could be South Florida and Notre Dame, which kicks off at 2:30 p.m. (on USA Network, as NBC will carry the U.S. Open).

Last Saturday, 3.5 million people watched the ABC broadcast before the first-quarter weather delay, according to the website Sports Media Watch, along with 1.2 million afterwards on ESPN2. Only Duke-Notre Dame (4.3 million) drew more. Saturday, there will be no SEC games, not to start for another week. There’s no especially compelling game among other college football viewing possibilities. Locally, Tech may pull in extra viewers after its upset of FSU and with buzz surrounding Sims.

This has the potential to be Tech’s most-watched game of the season and thus a valuable chance for the Jackets to sell themselves to fans and, certainly, recruits.

5. Defense could be shorthanded again

Tech may continue to be shorthanded against UCF. Cornerback Tre Swilling and defensive end Antonneous Clayton, who both missed the Florida State game with injuries, are uncertain at best to play against the Knights, although running back Jahmyr Gibbs, who also did not dress against the Seminoles, is expected to play. Tech will also be without defensive tackle T.K. Chimedza for the remainder of the year after a season-ending injury prior to the start of the season.

Swilling and Chimedza both started last year, and Clayton is expected to start when he returns. Swilling watched the game Saturday from the sidelines in a walking boot, dispensing advice to the cornerbacks while the Jackets offense was on the field.

In the starting lineup, cornerbacks Miles Sims and Zamari Walton combined for 12 tackles and three pass breakups against FSU. It was a representation of Collins' philosophy that there are no designated starters and that all players must be ready to perform at a high level.

“That whole mentality is going to pay off this season because this season is going to be unlike any other," Collins said.

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