5 things to know before Georgia Tech-Virginia

Georgia Tech will do something Thursday night it hasn’t done since October last year – take the field against an FBS opponent as a favorite.

Having won two games in a row under interim coach Brent Key, the Yellow Jackets were favored by three points over Virginia as of Wednesday. The favorite status will end their nine-game streak of playing as underdogs against FBS competition.

Tech (3-3, 2-1 ACC) also is playing for its first three-game win streak since 2018, when it won four in a row.

That season, coach Paul Johnson’s last, was the last time the Jackets were above .500 past the first game of the season and the last time they were two games above .500 in ACC play. Both of those distinctions are in play Thursday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium against Virginia (2-4, 0-3).

Also, a win over the Cavaliers will keep Tech in control of its path to the ACC Coastal championship. The Jackets have a 56.5% probability of winning Thursday night, according to ESPN.

Here are five things to consider ahead of Thursday’s game:

Looking at Virginia

The Cavaliers barely resemble the offensive juggernaut that was so entertaining and high-scoring a year ago, when they led the ACC in total offense (514.4 yards per game), ranked fourth in scoring (34.6 points per game) and had the ACC’s leader in total offense in quarterback Brennan Armstrong (427.3 yards per game).

Ahead of Thursday’s game, Virginia ranks 10th in total offense (356.8 yards per game), 13th in scoring offense (17.8 points per game, ahead of only Tech) and Armstrong’s total-offense average (259.7 yards per game, good for ninth in the conference) is well off his 2021 pace.

A change in scheme instituted by new coach Tony Elliott – from a more freewheeling style to one that is more timing-based – has been a difficult adaptation for Virginia. Having new starters at each offensive line spot hasn’t helped, either.

On defense, the Cavaliers have been vulnerable against the run. Aside from a strong showing against No. 14 Syracuse – a 22-20 road loss – Virginia has been hammered in the run game, giving up 198 yards or more in its other three games against power-conference competition. Virginia is effective in limiting big plays – only 20 plays allowed of 20 yards or more, 12th in FBS – but isn’t doing so well otherwise.

It bears noting that Virginia’s leading tackler – linebacker Nick Jackson – is a graduate of the Lovett School and was teammates and classmates with Tech nickel back K.J. Wallace.

Tony Elliott on Tech

Elliott said he was wary of Tech quarterback Jeff Sims, saying that “he throws it much better than you want him to” and that when he runs the ball, “it takes two, three guys to tackle him.” He paid respect to the offensive line, saying that it has become a more cohesive unit and that “they’ve got some big bodies with some length.”

On defense, Elliott said, Tech’s multiple looks and pre-snap shifting is a problem.

“I think when people line up, it’s easy to target ‘em,” Elliott said. “You can have some success. It’s when you jump around and guys start moving is where that creates problems for any offense. They’re just playing with a lot more confidence.”

Elliott is familiar with Tech, having been at Clemson from 2011-21, including the past eight as co-offensive coordinator or offensive coordinator.

Jackets offense gaining traction

After averaging 3.4 yards per play in the first two games against FBS opponents (Clemson and Ole Miss), the Tech offense averaged 5.8 yards per play against Central Florida, Pittsburgh and Duke.

The team’s scoring efficiency has drastically improved in the past two games since the change in leadership from Geoff Collins to Key. Against Clemson, Ole Miss and UCF, the team’s points-per-play average was 0.1, an almost unfathomably low rate for a three-game stretch. Against Pitt and Duke, thanks to better red-zone play, turnover avoidance, field position and execution, the Jackets’ rate is 0.34, still below average by FBS standards but improving.

Tight end Dylan Leonard saw the progress as the result of offensive coordinator Chip Long learning the players and players becoming accustomed to Long’s offense.

“You’re not going to be great at every single scheme, and certain players affect that in different ways,” Leonard said. “But we’ve condensed down as we went and found plays that we’re really good at, and we’re going to run those a lot hopefully because if we’re good at it, why not?”

Leonard’s return to health has helped. Absent the first two games with a hamstring injury, Leonard caught two passes for 28 yards in his first two games back. Against Pitt and Duke, he caught five passes for 44 yards.

“I feel a lot better than I did last year in Week 6, I’ll tell you that,” Leonard said. “My body feels good right now, which I’m grateful for.”

Staying on guard

It would not generally follow that a team that played poorly enough for its coach to get fired four games into the season also could be a potential candidate for suffering a letdown, but this does seem like the rare circumstance where that could happen. With two consecutive wins, an onslaught of praise and an opponent that is 0-3 in the conference, the Jackets could indeed fall prey to a pernicious case of overconfidence.

Safety LaMiles Brooks assured otherwise.

“There’s no room to fall off,” Brooks said. “The team that we beat Pitt and Duke with cannot be the same team that’ll come out here and play Virginia. We’ve got to be better than how we’ve been previous weeks, and we feel like that’ll lead to a ‘dub.’”

Key was more succinct.

“People can make a big deal about teams’ records and things like that,” he said. “Obviously, the position we’re in, there’s no way to ever talk about a team’s record.”

History lesson

The Tech-Virginia series is squared at 21-21-1, with both teams having dominated at home. The Jackets are 17-7 against Virginia at Bobby Dodd Stadium, including wins in the past five meetings in Atlanta. Five of the past six games in the series have been decided by eight points or fewer, including last year’s 48-40 win for Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. In that game, the Jackets trailed 48-27 before scoring a touchdown with 1:16 to play, recovering Jude Kelley’s onside kick, scoring another touchdown with 22 seconds left and recovering a second Kelley onside kick before a last-second pass into the end zone by Sims fell incomplete.

Tech and Virginia have played five times on Thursday nights, all in Atlanta, with the Jackets winning four. Key’s final home game, as a senior in 2000, was a Thursday night matchup with the Cavaliers, won 35-0 by Tech. The first Thursday night game between the two schools predated ESPN’s Thursday night package. It was a 1983 game that was broadcast on TBS. For $500,000, Tech athletic director Homer Rice moved the game from a Saturday to a Thursday to put the game on cable television. The Jackets won that game 31-27.