Geoff Collins in Year 2 — not yet a success, but not a failure

Georgia Tech's head coach Geoff Collins reacts during the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, November 28, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Georgia Tech's head coach Geoff Collins reacts during the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, November 28, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Bobby Ross – good coach, right? Won three ACC titles at Maryland. Took the Chargers to their only Super Bowl. In between those postings, he won a UPI national championship at Georgia Tech, going 11-0-1 in 1990.

That was his fourth season at Tech. His first ended 2-9, his second 3-8. His Yellow Jackets lost their first 15 conference games. (And the ACC didn’t then include Florida State.) Year 3 for Ross began 0-3, making him 5-20 overall. The Jackets would lose only one of their next 20 games. Who saw that coming?

I know of only one person. As the Jackets exited the field at Bobby Dodd Stadium after a narrow loss to Virginia on Sept. 16, 1989, I was standing next to John Dewberry, the former Tech quarterback who orchestrated famous victories over Georgia in 1984 and 1985. “These guys,” Dewberry said, “are going to start beating a lot of people real soon.”

I might have raised an eyebrow. I might even have said, “Yeah, right.” But sure enough, the Jackets of Ross wouldn’t lose again at home until Nov. 20, 1991. When finally they got going, they really got going.

Apologies for the saunter down Memory Lane, but I’d like to think there’s a point therein. Tech isn’t like other programs. It’s not easy to engineer, pun intended, a turnaround there. Ross didn’t inherit a sunken ship from Bill Curry — the Jackets were 6-4-1, 9-2-1 and 5-5-1 over the latter’s final three seasons – but it took a demonstrably excellent coach 2-1/2 seasons before good things happened. (And it wasn’t as if he’d hired a lousy staff. His offensive coordinator was Ralph Friedgen; his DC was George O’Leary.)

Tech went 3-9 last season, Geoff Collins’ first since succeeding Paul Johnson. The Jackets are 3-6 in 2020, such as 2020 has been. (Owing to COVID, Tech went from Halloween until Nov. 28 between games.) Last season saw the Jackets lose their first game by 38 points and their last by 45. Almost anything would have been an upgrade over that.

Credit: ACC

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Georgia Tech football coach Geoff Collins addresses potential furloughs within the Athletics Department because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Credit: ACC

There’s a parallel between Ross and Collins. Neither succeeded a coach who’d been fired. Curry left for Alabama; Johnson retired. The product had begun to decline under Johnson — in two of his final three seasons, Tech finished with a losing record — but he was 11-3 with an Orange Bowl win in 2014 and 9-4 with a victory over Georgia in 2016. Thing was, Johnson ran his program like no other Power 5 entity. The first thing Collins had to do was sign some tight ends; there’d been none on the Jackets’ roster since 2007.

The offensive side of the roster Collins inherited was recruited and taught to do one thing — run the offense Johnson created. This essentially left Collins presiding over half an expansion team. Early returns were predictable: Tech finished 121st among FBS teams in total offense last season, 121st in passing efficiency. That they bled out skinny victories over South Florida, Miami and N.C. State was something of a wonder.

His second Tech team was picked to finish last in a 15-team conference. It won’t finish last. It has beaten Florida State, Louisville and Duke – teams with an aggregate ACC record of 4-21. The 2019 Jackets ranked 124th in scoring; this year’s team is 90th. That’s a small sign of progress.

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Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins reacts in the second half of his debut game Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 52-14. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins reacts in the second half of his debut game Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 52-14. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins reacts in the second half of his debut game Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 52-14. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

There have still been frightful losses — by 66 points to Clemson, by 28 to Central Florida, by 18 to Notre Dame after trailing by 24 with 7½ minutes remaining. The Jackets also fell by 17 at Syracuse, which finished 1-10, and by 21 at Boston College. Of their 15 losses under Collins, only two — against the Citadel and Virginia last year — have come by fewer than 10 points.

They’re a home underdog against Pitt on Thursday night; they’ll be a road underdog at Miami on Dec. 19. They do, however, seem to have found a quarterback in Jeff Sims and a feature back in Jahmyr Gibbs, who was hurt against Duke 12 days ago. They could well be the ACC’s two best freshmen.

Tech averaged 286 yards last season; that yield has increased by 108 yards. Statistically, the defense has slipped a bit. The Jackets were 89th in yards against in 2019; they’re 105th now. UCF and Clemson managed 1,331 yards between them.

In 2019, it was possible to watch Tech and wonder, “What exactly is this team trying to do?” In 2020, a plan is becoming evident: The Jackets of Collins want to throw more than the Jackets of Johnson, which isn’t to call this an Air Raid amalgamation. They’ve run the ball 379 times; they’ve thrown it 247. In no game have they thrown more than they’ve run.

Given that they were picked to finish last in the ACC, the Jackets can be said to have overachieved. Still, they’re 3-6. But the key number for this program isn’t wins or yards — it’s age. Tech’s Above The Line listing — Collins’ stylized version of a depth chart – for the Pitt game includes nine seniors. It includes 12 freshmen, the injured Gibbs not among them. Twenty freshmen have played this season, the third-most among Power Five schools.

History teaches us that transitions at Tech can be problematic. This one is doubly dicey because Johnson left so little for the next guy. Ergo, Collins had to rebuild from the, ahem, ground up. We can’t know if he’ll succeed, but so far it wouldn’t appear he’s failing.

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