Season preview: What has to go right for Georgia Tech this season

Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins’ fourth season begins with the scrutiny of having produced nine wins (seven against ACC competition) in his first three seasons. There is an overwhelming sense that he’ll need to show more in the win column to be granted a fifth season.

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Athletic director Todd Stansbury has not publicly set a standard for Collins to reach, saying only that “we definitely need to be making progress.” One measure would be for Tech to make it to .500 and qualify for its first bowl game in Collins’ tenure.

That won’t be easy. ESPN’s metrics have set Tech’s probability of making it to six wins at 10%. Here are five variables that likely will have to go the Yellow Jackets’ way for that to happen:

» Jeff Sims needs to be a difference maker

What needs to go right: Now a third-year starter, the quarterback from Jacksonville, Fla., can make all the throws and is dangerous running the ball. He has put that on display often in his first two seasons. The challenge now is doing it on a consistent basis – making good decisions with the ball and throwing accurately – in an offense that has lost key pieces, most notably All-American back Jahmyr Gibbs, but also along the offensive line.

The indications have been that, with the aid of new coordinator Chip Long and quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke, Sims could reach that next stage.

“We obviously have a lot of work to do,” Weinke said. “But I’m really excited about the progress the quarterbacks have made, specifically Jeff, just in terms of having a better understanding of what we’re trying to do, which allows him to play faster.”

Tech rode Sims to its biggest win of the 2021 season, an upset of North Carolina at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, when he accounted for 240 yards of total offense and four touchdowns in three quarters of play. The Jackets could use several more of those performances in 2022.

What could go wrong: Perhaps the most indispensable player on the roster missed five games last year because of injury, so Sims making it through the season healthy hardly is a given. (He did start all of Tech’s 10 games in 2020.) That’s especially so given that his offensive line is inexperienced and the left tackle in charge of protecting Sims’ blindside – likely either Corey Robinson or Jakiah Leftwich – has not played a snap of college football.

Beyond that, Sims is adapting to a new scheme. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the offense – and Sims – struggles as players figure out the new system. It’s also possible that Sims does improve, but not enough for Tech to overcome deficiencies elsewhere in the offense.

» Offense has to play well as a whole

What needs to go right: Start with the offensive line. The group has one returning full-time starter, right tackle Jordan Williams. The line will have to protect Sims better than it has previously, and its run blocking likely will need to be better, too. The pressure squarely is on offensive-line coach Brent Key to produce a line that can tilt the field to Tech’s side, and Key has offered his full confidence that his players will get the job done.

The Jackets can win with the running backs they have – Dontae Smith, Hassan Hall and Dylan McDuffie. Tight ends Luke Benson and Dylan Leonard are ready to be utilized in Long’s scheme, which is reliant on the position. The receiving group is looking for a leader. Malachi Carter or Nate McCollum could fill that role.

Long was brought in to lift an offense that finished 127th, 71st and tied for 92nd in total offense with former coordinator Dave Patenaude. Long’s game planning and play-calling will have to be part of the solution.

What could go wrong: Long’s job would be much easier if he had an offense that still had Gibbs, left tackle Devin Cochran and slot receiver Kyric McGowan, three of the more productive players from last season’s offense. But he doesn’t, of course.

Long looks like an upgrade from Patenaude, but how much he can improve the offense after it has lost so many key pieces is to be determined. In his three seasons at Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish scored 1.4 more points per game than they did in the three seasons before his arrival. Tech probably will need more of a lift than that.

The effectiveness of the offensive line is another uncertainty. Aside from Williams, the other likely candidates to start on the line have a combined total of six career starts. That’s not to say the line can’t get it done, but it’s clearly an unproven and untested commodity.

» Defense must hold its own

What needs to go right: Essentially, a defense that ranked 117th last season in FBS in total defense and then lost nine players who started at least six games has to be drastically better.

How?

Collins is counting on a fresh start in the secondary, where only cornerback Zamari Walton returns as a starter. The group, with the likes of cornerback Myles Sims and safety Jaylon King, has the capacity to be functional. And, as has been repeated often, players believe better communication and trust in the scheme will pay off.

The most important cog on the defense might be defensive end Keion White, who is healthy after playing only four games last season and expected to be the consistent pass-rush threat off the edge that Tech has lacked throughout Collins’ tenure. Linebacker Charlie Thomas is another player who needs to hit another gear as a playmaker.

If those pieces work, and the Jackets can get decent play out of a young defensive tackle group, do better in the turnover department (13 takeaways last year, tied for 104th in FBS) and get a boost from Collins’ increased commitment to that side – which could be a significant lift – maybe it can work.

What could go wrong: Assume the secondary works out fine. The greater concern may be on the defensive line, a group that has not performed well in Collins’ first three seasons. The interest that NFL scouts are showing in White indicates his potential to be a game-changer, but he likely will see a lot of double teams if that is the case.

That leaves the onus on being the first line of defense against the run and creating pass-rush pressure on a group of linemen that largely is inexperienced. Tackles Makius Scott, Zeek Biggers, Akelo Stone and D’Quan Douse, all competing to be in the rotation, all played 55 defensive snaps or fewer last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

The increased input of Collins and the hiring of coaches David Turner (defensive tackles), Jason Semore (linebackers) and Travares Tillman (secondary) figure to help, but whether the pieces on the field are there, especially up front, is a question mark.

» Schedule has to cooperate

What needs to go right: Tech’s schedule includes five teams in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 – No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 Clemson, No. 16 Miami, No. 17 Pittsburgh and No. 21 Ole Miss. ESPN rates Tech’s schedule the fourth toughest in FBS.

Simply, Tech needs the schedule’s bite not to equate to its preseason bark. How could that happen? Four Jackets opponents – Duke, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Miami – have new head coaches and coaching staffs, and three of them are headed by first-time head coaches. It raises the potential for Tech to catch those teams as they’re finding their footing.

Both of Clemson’s coordinators are new, their predecessors now in head-coaching jobs, and that’s a team that Tech had a chance to defeat late in the fourth quarter last season. Pitt and Ole Miss saw their star quarterbacks move to the NFL, losses that could be more impactful than projected.

It’s conceivable that, by season’s end, the schedule won’t look as fierce as it does before the opener. For Tech’s sake, it will probably have to be the case.

What could go wrong: Basically, the opposite. Clemson’s defense looks stout again, and the offense could regain its rhythm with quarterback D.J. Uiagelelei in his second season as starter. Ole Miss refortified after a 10-win season with a talent-rich transfer class. Big 12-bound Central Florida is tough at home. Pitt may have lost quarterback Kenny Pickett and star wide receiver Jordan Addison, but its offensive line is intact and key pieces on the defense return, too.

Tech may be a better team, but a 1-4 start with losses to the aforementioned four teams isn’t difficult to envision. From there, getting to a bowl game would require a 5-2 finish, which would be an immense task, given that four of the seven are on the road, and the Jackets could be the underdog in five of the seven.

» Intangibles have to align

What needs to go right: While hopes were high last season, the team was dragged down by communication and trust issues, particularly on the defense. And this was a team that before last season proclaimed itself to be more accountable and better connected than previous seasons.

Players and coaches have declared this team to be past those issues, to be playing for each other, paying more attention to detail and enjoying better chemistry with one another.

“We just forced ourselves to work harder this year, grind, push each other and just become closer as a team,” Sims said.

All those things, while perhaps a little hokey, will have to play to Tech’s favor. The Jackets lost games last season in part because of inattentiveness and poor on-field communication. To have a chance this season, the Jackets will need every advantage they can obtain, including being better connected with each other.

What could go wrong: With 17 transfers and 15 incoming freshmen added to the roster, more than one-third of the scholarship players on the team were not with the team last year. That’s a lot of players who are having to learn new teammates (and vice versa) and also the culture and processes that Collins has tried to instill in his first three seasons. Further, more than half of the coaching staff is new.

Before the season begins, coaches can try to put players into situations where their mettle is tested, and the crucible of the preseason is real. But, let’s say the Jackets open the season with losses to Clemson, Ole Miss and Central Florida to start 1-3. For good measure, imagine the losses aren’t close.

That’s a challenging place for any team, let alone one with so many new players and with a coaching staff with its future at stake. Would team leaders such as Sims and linebacker Ayinde Eley be able to keep the locker room together? If they can’t, things could go downhill quickly.