In the team meeting room in the Georgia Tech football building, coach Geoff Collins assigns the youngest players to sit in the back. As they progress from freshmen to seniors, they move closer to the front of the room.
It’s a representation of the passage of time and also of time remaining.
“And really, the front row is all the older guys, the guys that have been here or have transferred in here with one year left, and the clock starts ticking,” Collins said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “When you’re down in that front row, most of the time you’ve got one year left, and it really amps up.”
Among those nearest the front of the room are Yellow Jackets players such as safety Tariq Carpenter, defensive tackle Djimon Brooks, offensive linemen Devin Cochran, Kenny Cooper and Ryan Johnson and wide receiver Kyric McGowan – players who either returned to Tech to use their extra season of eligibility or transferred to Tech for that final season believing it could be special.
The Jackets’ 41-30 loss to Boston College on Saturday was their seventh loss against three wins. It ensured that Tech will not go to a bowl game and that the 2021 season, at least by standard definitions, will not be special. The Jackets’ aspirations had been to post a winning season, which would have been the first in Collins’ tenure. That missed opportunity, for all of his players but especially for his seniors, is not lost on Collins.
“Those guys, it’s getting close, and just how much we love them, how much we care about them and want them to have this experience be very powerful, and obviously, not getting the wins is frustrating,” Collins said. “And it’s hurtful, especially when you look at it from that lens, how much those guys mean to us and mean to me, as well.”
They enjoy benefits regardless of the team’s record. The players have continued their training, competed in the ACC for another season and attended classes on scholarship. But those aren’t the primary reasons they came back. As Johnson put it last winter, he envisioned a championship, a ring and a trophy at the end of the season.
“Just watching the guys really grow in the offseason has really given me a lot of confidence, has given me a lot of confirmation that I think that this was great that I came back,” Johnson said then. “Because I can really feel that I’m going to be a part of something special.”
Of course, perhaps every football player has similar aspirations for his team, and not all of them can be realized. Not that that is likely much consolation.
After Saturday’s loss, Carpenter spoke of his hurt because he had aspired to help return Tech to the heights it had once scaled, but his time to do so was just about up and the job would be left unfinished. The Jackets finish with games at Notre Dame (No. 9 in last week’s College Football Playoff selection committee rankings, to be updated Tuesday night) and Georgia (No. 1).
“It just hurts that we’re not winning because we work so hard,” Carpenter said Saturday. “We go out there every single Saturday, put everything on the line.”
Collins said that there are 14 players on the team on the travel roster who were at his first offseason workout after his hire in December 2018. Collins met with that group on Friday morning, he said, “talking about how much each one of them meant to this program, meant to me personally,” he said.
The meeting got emotional, Collins added.
“You hurt for them,” he said.
As has become a familiar element of his Tuesday news conference, Collins went over the handful of plays from Saturday’s game that separated the Jackets from victory. Out of Tech’s seven losses, the Jackets have had a chance to either tie the score or take the lead in the fourth quarter in six of them, including Saturday’s.
Against Boston College, they included penalties, an interception, three Boston College third-down pass completions and a missed extra-point try.
“But just finding a way to win close games, that’s been the story of the year,” Collins said. “And, obviously, nobody’s more frustrated, disappointed, finding every single way to find those one or two plays that are the difference in us winning or losing.”
Collins shared a quote attributed to the late Bobby Bowden that a friend had shared with him regarding building a successful team.
“Sometimes you’re going to start off by losing by a lot,” he said. “Then you close the gap and you start losing close games. Then you start winning close games. Then you start winning big games. Unfortunately, we’re still in that (second) phase, trying to get over that hump. But we’re closer than we are far away.”