Among Tech faithful who have witnessed the Jackets’ struggle in Collins’ first two seasons, with back-to-back three-win seasons following coach Paul Johnson’s successful 11-year run, Rice’s expectations have resonance.
“My view of the world is that we ought to win six or seven,” said Steve Zelnak, a Tech grad and prominent donor to the athletic department and institute. “If things go really well, maybe we win eight. Three or four (wins) doesn’t cut it. Even though we’ve got a tough schedule, it’s time to step up and get it done. I’m pretty optimistic.”
Another major athletics donor, Gregg Garrett, said that he talks to as many as two dozen Tech fans daily as the season approaches.
“And to the man or woman, they all say the same things,” he said. “It’s time to win. It’s time to move forward with this program. And this is the year we’ve got to do it. It’s universal. And that’s rare to get a universal opinion about anything.”
Garrett feels an urgency for the Jackets to reach .500 and qualify for a bowl. He praised the work Collins and his staff have done in recruiting and player development, calling it a “miraculous job.” But he called this a “critical season” for Collins and his staff.
“I would put ‘critical’ in capital letters because if we don’t move the program forward this year, then I think that gives a lot of people – whether it’s the fan base, whether it’s recruits, whether it’s opponents – it gives them pause about where we are in this process, and is this process going to work?” Garrett said.
As for recruiting, Tech had 15 prospects committed for the 2022 signing class as of Friday. It could prove to be Collins’ best. With five four-star prospects committed, the class is rated 31st nationally and sixth in the ACC (247Sports Composite). Garrett, who keeps close tabs with Tech staff, believes that a bowl season could ramp it up even further. But not hitting that threshold would make it harder to keep winning high-level recruits.
“I think in Year 3, recruits want to go somewhere where it’s going to be a successful program, and in Year 3, it’s hard to sell, ‘We’re still rebuilding’ if you’re not winning,” Garrett said. “They want to see the proof in the pudding, so to speak.”
David Ewalt, who runs Recruit Georgia, a free recruiting exposure platform for in-state prospects, concurs. In an email, Ewalt called this season “huge” for Tech and Collins from a recruiting perspective. To this point, Ewalt has been impressed by Tech’s recruiting of prominent prospects, networking with high-school coaches and success in using the transfer portal to land in-state talent that initially left the state for college.
“A winning season where they compete in the upper echelon of the ACC would be a huge boost for the program, while another losing season will obviously create some doubt,” Ewalt wrote. “That is sort of the roller-coaster ride in the recruiting world. The honeymoon stage for a new coaching staff can only last so long and eventually, wins trump all.”
Garrett offered the caveat that he can accept a lesser record if the Jackets play well but accumulate tough breaks against them.
“But I think it’s important – really important – that they’re somewhere in that five, six or higher range,” he said. “It’s time to move forward, and I think Geoff would tell you the same thing.”
Garrett called himself “bullish” on Tech’s chances, what with 15 returning starters, a star running back in Jahmyr Gibbs, help from the transfer portal and increased size and experience on both the offensive and defensive lines, among other attributes. While he’s setting the bar at six wins, the team may be capable of much more, he said.
More specifically, Garrett wants to see the Jackets create a pass rush without blitz help and have a run game strong enough to consistently pick up third-and-short plays.
“Because if you can do that, then you can do a lot of things,” he said.
Oh, and one more thing.
Said Garrett, “By all means, please, from the good Lord, let us be able to kick a field goal.”
Zelnak, whose generosity to Tech includes the lead gift for the Tech basketball practice facility, calls the offensive line and quarterback Jeff Sims two keys to the team’s success. He has seen the roster grow deeper and bigger. He professed his support of Collins, saying that he thought he was hitting his stride.
Beyond reaching six or seven wins, Zelnak also wants to see the Jackets acquit themselves better against the tougher sections of the schedule.
“We need to play a lot better against Clemson, (North Carolina) and Georgia,” he said. “And even though those games are games that will be extremely hard to win, we need to show that we’re closing the gap there. We don’t need any more 73-7′s,” referring to the score of Clemson’s rout of Tech last season.
For their part, Collins and his staff are well aware of the external expectations and hold a similar outlook – the slogan for the season is “WIN 21.” That mindset was communicated two weeks ago, when Zelnak and other major supporters to the football team met with Collins (some virtually).
“(Collins) said the word ‘win’ more times than he has since he’s been here,” Zelnak said. “He feels like he’s got a team that can win and has the tools to do it with. He’s in a different place. I can certainly sense it and hear it.”
In his role as an ACC Network analyst, former Tech captain Roddy Jones recognizes it, too. Having seen the team practice in the spring and again in the preseason, he asserted that the Jackets are “an objectively better football team that they have been in the past.”
But whether that can be converted into wins is the question. The challenge of a .500 record becomes clearer with a check of the preseason Top 25, which includes five Tech opponents in the top 14 – No. 3 Clemson, No. 5 Georgia, No. 9 Notre Dame, No. 10 North Carolina and No. 14 Miami. If the Jackets can’t upset one of those five opponents, that means to make a bowl, they need to win six of the other seven games.
“And that is hard to do,” he said.
Jones arrives at his perspective knowing that, just as Tech takes confidence from its large number of experienced returnees, so does much of the rest of the conference.
“Everyone in their silo is like, Man, we’ve got all these returning starters, we get super seniors back,” he said, referring to the seniors playing a fifth season with their extra eligibility granted by the NCAA because of COVID-19. “And when everybody’s like that, what gives? From a fan standpoint, fans that only follow Georgia Tech, that’s what I would kind of caution against – everyone has a bunch of starters, like 16, 17 returning starters coming back on both sides of the ball.”
Jones will accept “visible improvement – how they operate and how consistently they play on a week-in, week-out basis.” He isn’t counting on a bowl season, though he’s hardly ruling it out.
“As a (former) player and fan, I want to be like, Hey, Year 3, let’s make a bowl game,” Jones said. “But I see these teams, and these teams are good. It’s hard.”
Las Vegas bookmakers have set Tech’s over/under win total at five wins. The drama of a pivotal season begins Saturday, unfolding week by week.