“Positives – we’re now to the point in the program we’re in these close games, which we haven’t been in the past,” Collins said. “Now we’ve got to find a way to win them.”
Losing close games hardly is the sort of improvement that fires up the fan base, perhaps especially so for a season whose slogan is “WIN 21.” But Collins looks upon it as evidence that the Jackets are close to turning the ship around.
After the loss to the Hokies, Collins alluded to the Jackets losing 45-0 to the same team two years ago at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Likewise, Clemson escaped Tech by a 14-8 score earlier in the season after bludgeoning the Jackets by an aggregate 125-21 in Collins’ first two seasons. Tech also beat North Carolina 45-22 after losing to the Tar Heels 38-22 in 2019. (Not fitting the narrative – the Jackets lost to Pitt 20-10 and 34-20 and 2019 and 2020, respectively, before the Panthers meted out a 52-21 thrashing this season.)
“We went from being one of the most penalized teams in the country to one of the least penalized teams in the country,” Collins said. “The attention to detail, the composure to be able to do that has grown by leaps and bounds.”
The Jackets will have another measuring stick Saturday, when they go to Miami. Tech beat the Hurricanes 28-21 in overtime in 2019 in the most significant win of Collins’ first season.
One could contend that the Jackets have had enough time to learn the habits of winning by this point, particularly with a defense that is loaded with veterans and returning starters and an offense with an assembly of playmakers, most notably running back Jahmyr Gibbs. Further, Collins took over a team that wasn’t unfamiliar with winning, having posted winning records in two of the past three seasons before Collins’ hire.
But it can’t be denied that the Jackets are perhaps two plays away from being 5-3 instead of 3-5 and on the precipice of a bowl berth, a result that likely most Jackets fans would recognize as an acceptable indication of improvement.
“The margin between the teams that we’re playing and us right now has been shrunk to a point where you’re playing good football and you’re playing against teams that are good football teams,” offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said. “And so if you make a play, you put them behind. They make a play, they put you behind, and it just keeps going back and forth.”
On the other hand, while Collins showed his team seven plays from the Virginia Tech game that were all pivotal in the outcome, Hokies coach Justin Fuente can most likely also show his own players a handful of plays that, had they made them, the final margin would have been larger than the final nine points.
Asked what he would tell restless (or worse) fans directly about his team’s state eight games into his third season, Collins asked for positivity toward his players and, without stating it, patience and trust.
“How we’ve recruited this roster, how we’ve developed this roster, the mind-set, the work ethic, the competition, how hard they play – all of those things don’t just come without the work that we’re putting in,” Collins said. “And once it flips, and once it happens, it’s going to take off. We just have to keep learning and finding the ways and then executing at a high level to take that next step. Anybody that sees where we were two years ago to where we are today, you should be able to see it, you should be able to feel it.”
The final four games – Miami, Boston College, No. 10 Notre Dame and No. 1 Georgia – will provide the Jackets further opportunity to demonstrate their progress, ideally by closing the gap and actually winning.
“The guys will keep working, we’ll keep coaching,” Collins said. “We’re teaching them the right things, things that have been successful everywhere that we’ve been, and it’s going to happen here. And it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.”