In Georgia Tech’s building plans, No. 21 North Carolina stands in way

Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins, right, and North Carolina coach Mack Brown meet up after a game against North Carolina, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Atlanta. North Carolina won 38-22. (John Amis/Special to the AJC)

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Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins, right, and North Carolina coach Mack Brown meet up after a game against North Carolina, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Atlanta. North Carolina won 38-22. (John Amis/Special to the AJC)

As 2018 drew to a close, the ACC’s Coastal Division wobbled in a particular state of flux, as three of its teams – Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina – all had made coaching changes. The fan bases of any of the three teams could reason that, with the division wide open, the timing was ideal for their team to seize control and make a move to the top.

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After two-plus seasons, the team that appears best positioned to make that ascent is No. 21 North Carolina, which will face Tech on Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The upshot for the Yellow Jackets and coach Geoff Collins is that Tar Heels coach Mack Brown’s strong start (15-10 in his first two seasons – 2-1 this season – after North Carolina was 5-18 in Larry Fedora’s final two seasons) and eye-opening recruiting successes have heightened the difficulty of Collins’ mission to build Tech into a member of college football’s elite.

While predicting the long-term future of anything in the Coastal is perhaps a fool’s errand – all seven teams took turns winning the division from 2013-19 before the league adopted a single-division format last year because of COVD-19 – the Tar Heels could have the inside track to becoming the division’s predominant player. The full story can’t be told three games into this season, and maybe not even at the end of this season. But the challenge for Tech and Collins was enough with facing powerhouses Clemson and Georgia annually. North Carolina, not to mention the other four Coastal teams that the Jackets finished behind in 2020, could make it an ordeal just to reach the top of the division.

“I think it definitely stinks for coach Collins that coach Mack Brown has come back to the ACC and revitalized this Coastal program, or is trying to,” ACC Network analyst Eric Mac Lain told the AJC.

A meaningful reason to place chips on the Tar Heels is the handsome collection of talent that Brown has amassed in Chapel Hill, N.C. By the measure of the 247Sports Composite team talent rankings, the Tar Heels’ roster ranks third behind Clemson and Miami (yet another potential monster for Tech to deal with in the Coastal, albeit one that has stumbled through its first three games) in the ACC.

In a way, the Tar Heels being rated as the third most talented team in the ACC is not a significant development – North Carolina was fourth in the ACC in the talent rankings in 2018, coach Larry Fedora’s last year. But that Tar Heels team had 12 four-star players. The 2021 team has two five-stars and 27 four-stars.

“It’s crazy the talent that he’s been able to compile and build inside out, from the line of scrimmage to the skill players,” Mac Lain said.

Tech has made its own marked progress with Collins, going from three four-stars in 2018 to 16 this season. But the Jackets are nevertheless chasing North Carolina and Brown, whose recruiting has focused heavily on winning in-state battles.

In the 2019-21 classes, North Carolina signed either the top or No. 2 player in the state (247Sports Composite) and signed five of the top 10 in 2020 and six of the top 10 in 2021. That notably includes quarterback Sam Howell, whom Brown persuaded to rescind his commitment to Florida State less than a month after his November 2018 hiring and who has become arguably the top quarterback in the country.

In the 2014-18 classes, North Carolina averaged signing two of the top 10 and signed the state’s top player once.

“It’s been really one of the focal points of that staff that, Hey, look, when we got here, all these guys leaving – that can’t happen,” Mac Lain said. “We have to keep them here.”

Overall, Mac Lain considers it the second-best roster in the ACC after Clemson. Wide receiver Josh Downs (a North Gwinnett High grad whom Tech made a high priority in the 2020 class), running back Ty Chandler, safety Ja’Quriuos Conley and defensive tackle Myles Murphy are among those Tech will need to be wary of Saturday.

The quick start to Brown’s tenure adds a layer of significance to Saturday’s game. While commitment decisions generally don’t hinge on the outcome of a single game, it’s a data point for recruits whom Tech is pursuing, some of whom are also being recruited by North Carolina. The Jackets surely caught prospects’ attention by nearly upsetting Clemson last week. An upset of the Tar Heels, in glitzy Mercedes-Benz Stadium, no less, would serve as further evidence of the Jackets’ progress toward fulfilling Collins’ vision.

It’s not as though Collins can’t accomplish his assigned task. Last week’s near upset was perhaps a hint. And North Carolina will have to first win the Coastal to rightfully claim superiority. Tech has 15 prospects committed (including five four-star players) for its 2022 class, ranked 32nd in FBS and sixth in the ACC.

“It’s been this total overhaul that’s been so impressive to see how they’ve done it really quickly and being able to get some stars like Jahmyr Gibbs,” Mac Lain said.

Tech’s competition with North Carolina has a personal wrinkle, as well, in that Brown’s player personnel director in his final season at Texas (2013) is Tech general manager Patrick Suddes.

“He’s as good as anybody in the country,” Brown said this week of Suddes. “I love Patrick.”

After his hire at North Carolina, Brown even tried to hire Suddes away from Auburn, where he was assistant athletic director for football. With plans in the works to join Collins at Tech and return to his hometown of Atlanta, Suddes declined. But he recommended Billy High, who was Suddes’ director of recruiting at Auburn and whom Suddes had mentored in their two years together. High got the job, and now Suddes and High are direct competitors, both overseeing their teams’ recruiting.

High heaped praise on Suddes, crediting him with teaching him the ins and outs of recruiting and being a valuable resource when he needed help.

“I owe a lot to him,” High said.

Tech’s recruiting takes it into North Carolina, and North Carolina, like perhaps every school in the Southeast, prioritizes recruiting in Atlanta. High said that there are “a handful of guys each year” that the two schools go head-to-head on. (Where Downs was a win for UNC, Gibbs was a prospect whom the Tar Heels fell short on to Tech.)

The two remain close friends, communicating every couple of weeks. The conversation tends toward catching up on each other’s young families or general work topics, not who won the latest commitment.

“We’re both competitive, so it’s hard to say anything kind of ‘Ha ha,’” High said.

The competition, spoken or otherwise, continues Saturday.

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