Preseason polls are meant to be predictions. Really, they are largely based on looking back. See how teams fared in 2019. Note how many starters return in 2020. Check the schedule. Then make an educated guess.
That approach shortchanges the Jackets. Put an asterisk next to their slide from 7-6 (5-3 ACC) in Paul Johnson’s last season to 3-9 (2-6) in Collins’ first. The Jackets didn’t just change coaches. They transformed the identity of a program whose brand was Johnson’s effective, but highly specialized, offense.
Tech’s offense likely would improve in 2020 under normal circumstances. Statistically, it’s easier to go from awful to OK than from OK to good. Under Tech’s specific circumstance, the chances of improvement likely are even greater. Now that the Jackets have recovered from the shock of scrapping the triple-option, they can focus on the finer details of playing Patenaude’s way.
That’s why it’s reasonable to expect substantial improvement from Tech’s offense. That should translate to more victories because the defense, solid last season, should be even better. Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings at ESPN provide some empirical backing for my beliefs.
Tech finished last season ranked 111th in SP+, an efficiency measure adjusted for tempo and opponent. The Jackets are ranked 58th in the SP+ preseason ranking (all FBS teams are included). They are ranked 10th among ACC teams in SP+. Connelly’s numbers, which have a good track record, are much higher on Tech than ACC media.
The Jackets will stay in games with their defense. It improved from 100th in SP+ in 2018 to 71st in 2019 and is 35th in in the preseason rankings. Tech’s defense ranks second nationally in Connelly’s weighted returning production formula. Tech’s big upgrade in defensive performance last season tracks with Collins’ history, which includes coordinating good defenses at Florida and Mississippi State.
With the defense likely to be good, much of Tech’s fortunes will come down to playing respectable offense. The Jackets ranked117th in offensive SP+ in 2019. They rank 90th in the preseason. My bullishness about their chances in 2020 is largely because those numbers (and human voters) don’t account for how the extreme swing in schemes contributed to Tech’s poor offense in 2019.
Collins and Patenaude, who also serves as quarterbacks coach, spent much of 2019 figuring out which guy can throw. The three quarterbacks who started games in 2019 struggled with accuracy. James Graham, who showed flashes of solid play in 2019, is back. Patenaude has raved about the potential of freshman Jeff Sims, who picked Tech over Florida State.
Tech’s inconsistent quarterback play in 2019 was strongly related to its poor pass protection. The offensive linemen had the hardest transition of any position group with the new offense. It did not go well. It wasn’t their fault. Injuries made the situation worse.
This year, Tech’s linemen are more accustomed to pass blocking and recognizing defensive fronts. That’s not the only change, per Patenaude.
“When you look at us, we are just so much bigger,” he said. “We are taller. We are girthier. Which is tough because a couple of our quarterbacks are barely six foot (tall), and they are looking around guys who are 6-4, 6-5.
“(The linemen) are bigger. They are stronger. They understand more.”
Hearing Patenaude’s assessment of the offense made me feel even more optimistic about Tech’s chances of being a lot better in 2020. Maybe Patenaude, like all coaches, is just caught up in the positive preseason vibes. But Tech’s coaches are nearly alone in FBS in that they can honestly say they had to teach their linemen and quarterbacks a drastically new way to play offense.
That explained much of Tech’s struggles in 2019. When Johnson’s triple-option was humming, it devastated opponents and kept the ball away from them. Collins improved the defense, which had been an afterthought, but the offense was so ineffective that Tech too often couldn’t muster enough points to stay competitive.
Collins spent a lot of his first season at Tech explaining the unprecedented nature of the shift away from the triple-option. That may have been self-serving. It also was honest. Not since Rod Dowhower replaced Gerry DiNardo at Vanderbilt in 1995 had a team gone from grinding with the triple-option to trying to running and passing from an updated scheme.
The transition didn’t go well for Dowhower. He was fired after consecutive 2-9 seasons in which Vandy ranked last nationally in points scored per game. The Jackets ranked 124th of 130 FBS teams in Year 1 under Collins. They’ll score more, and win more, in Year 2.