Looking in from the outside, Georgia Tech just wants a bowl game

Each season has begun with the same confident aspiration.

“He’s a positive thinker, of course,” Desiree Salazar said. “But every year, he starts off with, ‘Mama, we’re going to make it to a bowl game.’”

Salazar’s son is Georgia Tech running back Dontae Smith. Tough ballcarrier, winning smile, likable young man. And also, unfortunately, errant bowl prognosticator. Smith has lived with the same unmet expectations for the past four years as the Yellow Jackets have wandered the football hinterlands.

Now in his sixth season (thanks to an extra season of eligibility because of COVID-19), Smith has played for three head coaches and five position coaches. He has been a supportive and loyal team member through lean seasons when he had reason to test the transfer portal.

With his college career now reduced to its final several days, Tech has a shot at the postseason, an occurrence that is commonplace at many other schools but not at his. At 5-5, Tech would clinch its first bowl since 2018 with a win over Syracuse at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday night. Smith actually returned for his sixth season for this specific opportunity, he said Wednesday.

Football gods, is that too much to ask?

“I’m ready for it, the team’s ready for it,” Smith said. “But it does mean a lot to us.”

There aren’t many football players at the Jackets’ level for whom it would mean more. Since Tech went to the Quick Lane Bowl in 2018 in coach Paul Johnson’s final game in Smith’s freshman season, every other power-conference team but four has made at least one bowl trip and most have played in multiple bowl games.

Yes, Smith has attended Tech on a full scholarship, been trained by expert coaches, received academic support, earned a business degree, made plentiful connections and played against top competition on national TV in some of the more renown stadiums in the country. He has received plenty.

But he and his teammates also have paid a price, eloquently articulated by Syracuse coach Dino Babers, whose team seeks its own bowl-clinching sixth win at Tech’s expense.

“They give up their summers, they go through broken bones, torn ligaments, surgeries,” he said at his weekly news conference Monday. “If we can find a way to get ‘em to a bowl game, to me, that’s a good thing.”

But Syracuse at least went to a bowl game as recently as last year. Aside from Smith and safety Jaylon King (also a freshman in 2018, the two final players on the roster to have suited up for Johnson), no Jackets player who arrived at Tech as a freshman has had the pleasure of a bowl trip.

That includes tight end Dylan Leonard, who joined the team in 2019 as a walk-on from Milton High. Babers’ ode fairly describes Leonard, who has played through injuries while giving his body to protect quarterbacks, clear running lanes and earn a scholarship.

“It means a lot to a lot of people,” Leonard said. “To get to six wins and get bowl eligible, I’m really excited that we have that opportunity this week.”

Smith’s memories of the 2018 bowl game in Detroit are fairly humble. It was his first time on a plane (he redshirted that season and didn’t travel to road games).

“It was scary,” he said. “But I’ve gotten used to it.”

He didn’t play in the game, and Tech lost to Minnesota.

But “just being able to go out and walk the city when you’re not practicing and be with your boys in a different area and just enjoying it, you’ve got a game (to look forward to),” Smith said. “It was for sure fun, and I know that whatever bowl game that we get, we’ll work, but we’ll also have fun.”

Let the record show that he waxed sentimental about spending Christmas in Detroit, not New Year’s in South Beach. This is a young man who is not going to be picky.

“He just brings good energy,” said Salazar, Smith’s mother.

Smith has further revealed his character in the way he has handled the course of his career. In 50 games, he has gained 1,492 rushing yards, 30th on Tech’s all-time leaderboard. But, despite a knack for breaking tackles and making something out of nothing – his career 5.6 yards-per-carry average is eighth all-time in Tech history – he has started seven games in five seasons. He has shared snaps with the likes of Jahmyr Gibbs, Jordan Mason, Jamious Griffin, Hassan Hall and, this season, Jamal Haynes and Trey Cooley and done it without complaint.

“He’s always a cheerleader,” Salazar said. “He wants what’s best for everybody.”

Amid the losing, coaching changes and uncertainty about playing time, he would have seemed a likely candidate to transfer and find a place where he could have more opportunities and spotlight. But Salazar said that she and her eldest child never had a conversation about it.

“With all the changes, Dontae, his character is loyalty,” Salazar said. “That’s just who he is.”

Saturday’s game portends drama. The Jackets, who have not played their best when considered the favorites, were 6.5-point favorites as of Thursday. The five-win Orange ended a five-game losing streak Saturday by breaking out a run-heavy scheme that flogged Pittsburgh for 382 rushing yards.

Tech’s weakness?

Run defense.

The members of Tech’s 1998 ACC co-championship team, for which coach Brent Key was the starting right guard, will be on hand, including Key’s mentor George O’Leary. Notably, members of that team were on the 1997 team that ended the Jackets’ last prolonged bowl drought (five years).

And, for good measure, Syracuse may be playing for Babers’ job.

If they made movies about teams trying to become bowl eligible – “Brent Key and the Bowl-y Grail” – this one has some flavor.

Both teams will have another shot to earn bowl eligibility if they lose Saturday, but Tech’s would be against No. 1 Georgia, a task that feels a little bit like trying to climb Mount Everest backward.

So maybe not “now or never,” but more like “now or most likely never.”

Dontae Smith’s mother will be in the stands. She’s one of those moms that you don’t talk to during games.

“I’m always anxious about games,” Salazar said. “This one, just to know how much not only that it means to him, but it means to the team and coach Key, yes, definitely anxious. I know how much work they’ve put into it.”

In a billion-dollar industry, in a season marked by a sign-stealing scandal and a school sending off a coach with a $76 million buyout, Smith and his teammates just want another game, some bowl gear and a few days with their buddies in a fancy hotel.

Various bowl projections place the Jackets in the Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, Florida (versus Central Florida), the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Maryland (versus Memphis), the First Responder Bowl in Dallas (versus Texas Tech) and the Pinstripe Bowl in New York (versus Rutgers).

Smith may have gotten over his fear of flying, but if it meant playing in a bowl game, he’d probably be willing to walk.