Inspecting Georgia Tech’s first six games, chances for bowl game

Halfway through the season, the 2021 Georgia Tech team appears to be an improvement upon the previous two editions. Many indicators, not least of which is the Yellow Jackets’ 3-3 record, would point to the progress spurred by coach Geoff Collins in his third season after three-win seasons in 2019 and 2020.

But, as the Jackets take their only open date of the season, there’s a lot of room for growth.

“There’s no doubt when you watch this team play that this program has moved forward and gotten better,” said Gregg Garrett, a major donor to the Tech athletic department. “But it’s got to show up every week consistently, and they’ve got to find a way to win some games.”

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Tech has reached 3-3 in a path that wasn’t expected – namely, losing to Northern Illinois and beating North Carolina, then ranked in the Top 25. The Jackets had a near upset (the 14-8 loss at Clemson then ranked among the top 10) and stole a last-minute win at Duke on Saturday. Different players, position groups and facets of the team have risen one week and come up short the next.

“I think you’ve seen that there’s some really good pieces on that team,” ACC Network analyst and former Tech team captain Roddy Jones said. “I think the team as a whole has been inconsistent. That’s on a game-in, game-out basis. That’s on a play-in, play-out basis, and the margins for error are pretty small to win football games.”

The Fremeau Efficiency Index (compiled by football analyst Brian Fremeau for Football Outsiders), which measures offensive and defensive per-possession efficiency and incorporates schedule strength, ranks Tech at 75th in FBS, 13th of 14 ACC schools. The Jackets were 101st last season and 100th in 2019. (They ranked 56th in 2018, coach Paul Johnson’s final season.)

The defense is ranked 81st, the offense 69th and special teams 60th. A year ago, the ratings were 88th, 92nd and 116th, respectively. It speaks of improvement, though not overwhelming.

ESPN’s ranking metrics placed Tech 49th as of Friday, good for 10th in the conference. Better, but still not in the top half of the ACC.

“If this team plays well on a week-in, week-out basis, they’ll have a chance to win every game,” Jones said. “But the league is so similar, in that every team’s got top-end talent, every team’s got holes and issues. So everybody kind of falls right there together, whether it’s Duke or Clemson. So I think they’re kind of indicative of what you’re seeing in the league on a week-in, week-out basis.”

Linebacker play with Charlie Thomas, Ayinde Eley and Quez Jackson has been solid, particularly with the move from the 4-2-5 alignment to the 3-3-5 package that has enabled all three to be on the field at the same time. The defensive line has shown promise, particularly at the end position with the likes of Jordan Domineck, Jared Ivey and Kyle Kennard.

“That group, to me, is the group that I’ve been the most pleased with from a defensive standpoint,” Garrett said.

Tech’s eight-sack game against North Carolina – the Jackets’ most sacks in a game since 2007 – was a stunning display of ferocity, but the Jackets had two sacks total in the following two games.

“The defensive front, it looked a little bit like Duke at times looked more physical than them,” said James Bates, the Bally Sports South analyst who called the Tech-Duke game. “That shouldn’t be the case. They’ve got these big guys that have grown up that are in there. They need to light that fire every snap and be a little bit more physical up front because they have the bodies up there.”

The secondary, particularly given the experience, could be better. While interceptions aren’t the only marker of a secondary’s effectiveness, Tech’s defensive backs do have only one interception this season – the game-clinching pick by safety Juanyeh Thomas against Duke.

“We consistently seem to be out of position. We miss tackles when we’re not even getting blocked back there, and the secondary hasn’t made any big plays,” Garrett said. “That’s the group to me on defense that has been probably been the biggest disappointment.”

On offense, quarterback Jeff Sims has been a dynamic playmaker, most prominently against North Carolina, but he also has had bouts with inaccuracy and poor decisions. Still, his completion rate (62.5%) and yards-per-attempt average (9.9) are advancements from his freshman season (54.9%, 7.3).

“I just think he’s only going to get better and better,” Bates said.

The offensive line has improved, but given the experience and the addition of grad-transfer left tackle Devin Cochran, it’s not unreasonable to have expected more. While the line has dealt with injuries, the run-game performances against Pitt (31 rushes for 73 yards) and Duke (39 for 143) in the past two games were lacking, especially given the talent at running back. Tech pounded North Carolina and Northern Illinois in the run, a fulfillment of offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude’s vision to play “bully ball,” but, again, consistency is the issue.

“The offensive line still has some limitations,” Jones said.

The wide-receiver group has made a string of big plays. Grad-transfer Kyric McGowan and Malachi Carter are trusted targets for Sims, and Adonicas Sanders fought for two huge catches to help rescue the Duke game.

“I’m sure they’ve had drops, but it seems like they’ve caught about everything thrown at them,” Garrett said. “They’re making big plays.”

While running back Jahmyr Gibbs’ run-game production has dropped, he has been effective in the passing game. Dontae Smith has emerged as a potent backup (6.9 yards per carry) and makes a convincing case for more touches.

To Tech’s credit, two areas that Collins made a priority – penalties and turnovers – have shown significant improvement. Going into the weekend’s games, Tech was 19th in FBS in penalty yardage, at 41.3 yards per game, after finishing 119th last season, at 74.9 yards per game.

As of Friday, Tech was 49th in turnover margin (plus-.3 per game) after it was 111th (minus-.7 per game) in 2020. Special teams, too, is better in many areas, particularly in field-goal kicking and kickoff coverage, thanks to the work of Brent Cimaglia and Gavin Stewart.

“That’s an A, a solid A,” Garrett said of special-teams play.

After the up-and-down first half of the season, the challenge will rise in the final six games – at Virginia, vs. Virginia Tech, at Miami, vs. Boston College, at No. 14 Notre Dame, vs. No. 1 Georgia. To make a bowl game, the Jackets need to find three wins from that six.

“I think absolutely, especially this year, this is a good year for those teams that are trying to take that step into the upper tier,” Bates said.

Garrett, who before the season called it critically important for Tech and Collins to get to at least five wins, if not more, maintained his position.

“I’ll kind of double down and say the second half of this season is hugely importantly for this program,” he said. “Nothing’s changed. If anything, the first half just makes the second half even more important, to some degree.”

The first four remaining games would seem far more attainable than the final two. Each opponent has its challenges – Virginia’s passing game, Virginia Tech’s defense, Miami’s talent and Boston College’s consistency. Jones sees the Cavaliers and the Hurricanes as the more likely targets.

“And that would put you in position, with an upset of Notre Dame or Georgia, you can make a bowl game,” Jones said. “Five wins, I would consider that a success.”

The degree to which Tech can play with consistency could tell the story.

“Come out every week, play good football, execute well and then let the chips fall where they may,” Garrett said. “Over the next six games, beyond finding at least three more wins, I think that to me is the big thing.”