Brent Key beat Georgia as player. Can he make his Yellow Jackets believe as coach?

Georgia Tech has lost four consecutive games, 18 of 21 vs. UGA.
Georgia Tech receiver Will Glover, right, is hugged by offensive lineman Brent Key after scoring on a short pass in the second half of Tech's 40-13 victory over Navy in Atlanta, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2000. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

Georgia Tech receiver Will Glover, right, is hugged by offensive lineman Brent Key after scoring on a short pass in the second half of Tech's 40-13 victory over Navy in Atlanta, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2000. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Brent Key played for Georgia Tech teams that won three consecutive games against Georgia. Only one player on Tech’s roster has defeated Georgia. Wide receiver Christian Leary did it while playing for Alabama.

None of the current Yellow Jackets players can remember when Tech regularly beat the Bulldogs. Key’s three consecutive wins happened 23 years ago. Georgia has won only 18 of 21 meetings since then, including four in a row.

Key acknowledges it bothers him that the once-competitive rivalry has become lopsided in Georgia’s favor.

“Damn right, it does,” Key said Tuesday.

The chances are good that Key will continue to be irked by losing to Georgia for another year. The top-ranked and undefeated Bulldogs are heavy favorites to win Saturday’s game. It’s at Bobby Dodd Stadium, but that’s hardly been an advantage for Tech. The Bulldogs have won 11 games in a row there while playing in front of crowds that have been increasingly dominated by Bulldogs partisans as Tech’s fortunes declined.

So, how does Key get his players to believe they can beat Georgia when only one of them has done it and all of them have rarely even seen it?

“There’s a first time in everything in your life,” Key said Tuesday. “And guess what? I’ve beat them. I know what it is. And I’m the head coach. They are going to believe as I believe.”

The Jackets do have some reasons to believe they can beat Georgia. Many of them are filed under the broad category of: Anything can happen. But some of the rationales for a shocking Tech upset are more specific.

Key’s Jackets often have punched above their weight. They’ve won eight games as underdogs. Last season, Tech beat then-No. 24 Pitt and No. 13 North Carolina. This season, the Jackets beat No. 17 Miami and No. 17 UNC. Georgia is on another level from those opponents, but Key can remind them that they’ve won plenty of times when few outsiders thought they could.

The Jackets also can take some positives from last season’s game in Athens. They scored first in that game to hold their first lead over Georgia since winning the 2016 meeting. Tech trailed only 13-7 with more than half of the third quarter played. The Bulldogs went on to win 37-14, but Tech had put pressure on them for the first time in years.

At the time, the Jackets were just starting to climb out of the ruins left behind by Geoff Collins. Key was the interim coach. When the Jackets made Key the full-time head coach after the season, he vowed that his team would work every day to beat Georgia.

“And that’s what we are doing, that’s what we’ve done,” Key said Tuesday.

I don’t doubt that’s the case. Key said it was “huge” and “tremendous” to be part of the rivalry as a player, and it’s easy to tell how badly he wants to beat Georgia as Tech’s coach. Key said he keeps a replica of the Governor’s Cup trophy in his office.

“I want guys to see that,” Key said. “I want them to know what that is. I want them to understand the importance of this game. It’s not just another game.

“When you come into the season, there’s two goals. There’s the goal to go to the bowl game, and there’s the goal to beat Georgia.”

The Jackets (6-5) met their goal of making a bowl game by beating Syracuse on Saturday. They also finished with a winning record in the ACC for the first time since 2018.

Those are significant accomplishments for Key in his first full season as coach. The next step is avoiding ugly losses when the Jackets are big favorites — this year they came against Bowling Green and Boston College — so they can do more than barely qualify for a bowl game.

Beating Georgia has become the loftiest goal of them all for the Jackets. “Clean Old-Fashioned Hate” has become a game that some Tech fans probably hate to see on the schedule.

“Rivalries aren’t one-sided,” Key said. “Rivalries are competitive games between two teams. That’s what makes rivalries great. This is, hands down, one of the greatest rivalries in the country. In order for that to be the case outside of our scope, it needs to be competitive.

“Well, that’s on us at Georgia Tech. That’s on us to be able to go out and compete four quarters in a football game.”

The Jackets did that in 2016. They won 28-27 in Athens for coach Paul Johnson’s third victory in nine tries against Georgia. That was Kirby Smart’s first season as Georgia coach. Duplicating that victory will be tough for Tech now that Smart has UGA rolling. Johnson suffered blowout victories in his last two games against Smart’s Bulldogs, and that trend has continued under Collins and Key.

It’s not hard to figure why Tech has struggled to keep up with Georgia. There are Tech’s stricter academic requirements, even though that angle can be overstated (then again, I never wanted anything to do with calculus). More important than that, the finances show that Georgia and Georgia Tech really are competing in different divisions even though both are Power Five conference teams in FBS.

Tech’s football budget lags most of its ACC peers, and it’s dwarfed by the money spent by SEC powerhouses. Georgia spent $61.7 million on football in fiscal year 2021-22, according to Sportico’s college financial database, including more than $19 million for coaching salaries. Tech spent $26 million total on football during that time.

Key believes the Jackets can beat Georgia despite those disadvantages. They did it while he was a player. Now that Key coaches Tech, he’ll try to get his players to believe they can do it, too.

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