Georgia Tech needs ‘breath of fresh air’ from bowl victory

First winning season since 2018 would help program’s momentum
Jaylon King is one of two Georgia Tech players who were on the roster for its last bowl game. (Jeffrey Gamza/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Jeffrey Gamza/Pitt Athletics

Credit: Jeffrey Gamza/Pitt Athletics

Jaylon King is one of two Georgia Tech players who were on the roster for its last bowl game. (Jeffrey Gamza/Georgia Tech Athletics)

TAMPA, Fla. — Jaylon King committed to play football for Georgia Tech not long after the Yellow Jackets won nine games in 2016. They’d been Orange Bowl champions two seasons prior. King was a freshman watching from the sidelines when Tech lost the 2018 Quick Lane Bowl against Minnesota to drop to 7-6, which was a disappointing record for Tech back then.

The Jackets have done a whole lot of losing since then. Now they have a chance to go out as winners against Central Florida. The Gasparilla Bowl isn’t the Orange Bowl, but a victory would mean something for Tech (6-6) after four consecutive losing seasons.

“A breath of fresh air,” King said. “A start in the right direction. We haven’t had a winning season since my freshman year. I feel like that would be a great foundation for this team to build on.”

The Jackets haven’t won a postseason game since 2016. A bowl victory to secure a winning season would help Brent Key build on the good work he’s done with recruiting, player development and culture-building.

Key got the Jackets to believe again when he took over as interim coach last season. They haven’t lost back-to-back games this year. Tech followed poor efforts with good wins. Key just signed the program’s highest-ranked class since 2020, according to 247Sports.

To keep the momentum going, Key will have to make Tech a place where good players go to play winning football. It was that way for a long time. The Jackets went to bowl games for 18 consecutive seasons from 1997-2014 while posting winning records in 17 of those seasons. The success spanned the tenures of coaches George O’Leary, Chan Gailey and Paul Johnson.

Key was part of that prosperous era of Tech football. He was a starter at guard for the Jackets when they qualified for four consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1953-56 and was a graduate assistant for O’Leary. Tech’s good times ended with Geoff Collins as coach.

Now Key is trying to get Tech back to the point where postseason football games are the norm.

“It becomes part of who you are,” Key said. “It’s the identity of your program. There’s an expectation every year of going to a bowl game. When you’re in the beginning stages of building a football team ... the first step is to be one of those teams who have an extra opportunity to play (and) practice more, adding an extra season of spring practice.

“It also gives you a chance with the seniors to do one last thing for them.”

The players who stuck with Tech through the losing can go out as winners. King and running back Dontae Smith are the last of players signed by Johnson (Smith didn’t appear in a game during the 2018 season). Dylan Leonard and Sylvain Yondjouen are the only other seniors who began at Tech as freshmen (Yondjouen is out for the bowl game with a knee injury).

Key said Smith and King especially enjoyed the pregame activities in Tampa.

“It makes you see that there’s so much more to this experience than just the game that’s being played,” Key said. “These are lifelong experiences for so many more than just our players and our coaches and our staff. It’s like a vacation for them. It is a vacation for them with their friends.

“Now it’s time to really start to focus in, start to shift all of our momentum towards one thing.”

Last time we saw the Jackets they were making Georgia sweat at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Bulldogs had to recover an onside kick to secure the 31-23 victory. Tech is one of only two teams to score more than 21 points against Georgia this season. Alabama is the other.

Tech has fashioned an effective offense around quarterback Haynes King. His dual-threat ability is key to Tech’s ACC-leading 5.4 yards per rushing attempt. UCF ranks 11th of 14 Big 12 teams in yards allowed per carry (4.8). The chances are good that the Jackets will create plenty of scoring chances.

The questions mostly are on defense for Tech. That’s been the case all season, despite Key shuffling roles among his defensive staff. UCF’s offense will be a challenge. Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee rediscovered his form after missing a month with a leg injury.

“What makes them unique is the way they design plays to get their players the ball,” said King, a starter at safety. “They do a lot of things to mess with our eyes, to have us look one way and then get the ball to (playmakers).”

The Knights are trying to finish a down season on a high note. They once ruled the American Athletic Conference but lost six of nine league games during their first season in the Big 12. UCF beat Tech decisively in 2020 and 2022. After the 27-10 loss in Orlando last season, Tech fired Collins and athletic director Todd Stansbury.

Losses to Group of Five opponents had become too common for Tech. It happened again when Bowling Green won at Bobby Dodd in September. At the time, it seemed that defeat might cost the Jackets a bowl bid, but it was offset by upset victories at Miami and versus North Carolina.

The Jackets are back in a bowl game for the first time since King was a freshman and, as the talented sixth-year senior said, winning it would breathe life into Tech’s program.

Georgia Tech running back Dontae Smith (4) runs against Georgia linebacker Smael Mondon Jr. (2) during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium, Saturday, November 25, 2023, in Atlanta. Georgia won 31-23 over Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech's tight end Dylan Leonard (center) warms up during a training camp at Georgia Tech’s Rose Bowl Field, Tuesday, August 1, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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