Bowl game is ‘bare minimum’ for Georgia Tech, but that’s asking a lot

Jordan Williams smiles as his wins an award after Georgia Tech's spring football game in Atlanta on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Bob Andres for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Jordan Williams smiles as his wins an award after Georgia Tech's spring football game in Atlanta on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Bob Andres for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Georgia Tech coach Brent Key became (jokingly) exasperated when media kept asking him about expectations for his team. I get it because I’m not a big fan of the subject, either. But it’s July, it was the ACC Football Kickoff event, so expectations were pretty much all everyone was talking about Tuesday.

Besides, Key can try to sidestep the topic, but his players won’t.

“We talk about that all the time because coach Key takes pride in making sure we’re a player-led team,” Tech junior offensive lineman Jordan Williams said. “We’re definitely setting all the standards for the team, setting all the goals, setting all the things we want to accomplish this year just to make ourselves happy.”

OK, then, what kind of season would make Yellow Jackets players happy?

“Bare minimum, a bowl game would make us happy,” Williams said. “Bare minimum.”

That was the standard for Tech not long ago. Winning seasons were a given with coaches George O’Leary, Chan Gailey and Paul Johnson. The Jackets played in the postseason for 18 consecutive seasons from 1997 through 2014, and again in 2016 and 2018.

Losing seasons were the norm with Geoff Collins. He was fired after a 1-3 start in 2023. Key replaced him on an interim basis and went 4-4, with two road victories against nationally ranked ACC opponents. Finally, the Jackets produced evidence that they could win without Johnson’s specialized offense.

It raised expectations for better things from the Jackets in 2023. Key technically is a first-year coach, but he’s already won more games for Tech than Collins ever did. How much will that help Tech’s confidence in 2023?

“Zero,” Key said. “The past is the past. Learn from the past, prepare for the future, live each day as it is. We’ve got to work every day. When the season is over, it’s over.

“We’ve got new players. We’ve got new staff. We’ve got new schemes. We’ve got new terminology. We’ve got new ways of doing things. It’s different.”

From that perspective, you can understand why Key is downplaying the expectations. Once he got the job, Key went about making the program his own.

Key reshaped his coaching staff with six new assistants, including offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner. He added 17 transfer players. The Jackets came out of the portal in good shape, according to the experts at 247Sports, but who knows how all those new players will mesh with the holdovers and the new coaches.

It’s possible the Jackets will go through some growing pains in 2023. That’s probably not what their supporters want to hear after seeing only two winning seasons in the past eight. I still say Collins had the right idea about marketing his program in Atlanta. It paid off in recruiting. Collins just couldn’t deliver the wins or, at the end, competitive efforts.

Key did much better in those areas. He and his players restored some hope for the program. That optimism can be quickly undercut with another dud season.

“Winning is the only thing that I can see in my eyes that can change things,” Tech defensive back LaMiles Brooks said. “It doesn’t matter what we say or do, if we don’t go out there and produce and win, it’s just talking at the end of the day.”

Tech’s players produced and won more for Key than they did for Collins. That suggests they are buying what he’s selling. The spirit should carry over to 2023 even with all the new faces.

“I hope so,” Key said. “Saying it and showing it are different. It seems that the buy-in is there. But we’ll see when adversity strikes. That’s when you really find out.”

It shouldn’t take long for that to happen. The Jackets open with an ACC contest against Louisville at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Oddsmakers have them as 8.5-point underdogs for that game. Tech is at Ole Miss in Week 3. Tech lost 42-0 to the Rebels at Bobby Dodd Stadium in September. The next week Tech will go to Wake Forest, which won eight games last season and should be good again.

The Jackets are more of a mystery. The 4-4 record with Key was good under the circumstances. Still, Tech’s offense sputtered in the four losses, and its defense was shellacked in three of them. I thought the Jackets showed enough with Key as coach for him to keep the job, but they still are searching for consistency.

Said Brooks: “The team fought tirelessly to try to make sure coach Key got the job. Now that we have him, it’s up to us to go out there and produce and show ourselves and the school made the right decision.”

External expectations are low for Tech. Bookmakers set the over/under win total at 4.5 games. The schedule doesn’t get any easier after the three difficult games within the first four. Key said explosive offense is key to winning, but noted that he still doesn’t know who will start at quarterback. Tech’s wide receiver group is talented, but also “young, inexperienced, green.”

Those are among the reasons why the Jackets could post a losing record in 2023. They are aiming higher than losing as many games as they win.

Said Key: “There is not one of these guys here or one guy on our team that will tell you that 4-4 is acceptable. Let’s be real. That’s (.500). That doesn’t get you anything in this game. It really doesn’t. That’s why I’m saying we have a long way to go.”

Well, a break-even record can get you a bowl game in college football, but Key’s point is well taken. It turns out he’s OK with high expectations for his team, even if he tires of being asked about them.