Georgia Tech still must prove it can win without triple-option

Paul Johnson proved he could win at college football's highest level with his triple-option offense.

Paul Johnson proved he could win at college football's highest level with his triple-option offense.

There was a simple logic to Georgia Tech hiring Paul Johnson as football coach. He would help the Yellow Jackets beat opponents who had more player talent, same as he did at Navy. It worked, for the most part.

Johnson’s Jackets won four division titles, one ACC championship and an Orange Bowl. He won three times at Sanford Stadium, including a victory over Kirby Smart. The Jackets won at a more modest level over Johnson’s final four seasons, but his overall tenure was proof that Tech could punch above its weight.

Now, more than four years after Johnson retired, the big question remains. Can the Jackets be winners without the benefit of a specialized offense that wrong-footed foes?

They’ve done it before, of course. But college football was a lot different when George O’Leary was on The Flats. Bobby Ross’ co-national championship was so long ago that the entity that awarded it in 1990, United Press International, doesn’t do rankings anymore. By next season, college football will be on its third format for crowning a champion since then.

There was logic in Tech moving away from the triple-option, but the results haven’t followed. Maybe it’s just a matter of the Jackets hiring the wrong coach.

Geoff Collins improved the recruiting, as promised. But with Collins the Jackets were worse on offense and defense than they’d been since the lamentable Bill Lewis era. Surely the Jackets can do better than Collins’ 4-12 record in 2021 and ‘22 – give him a pass for the two years post-option – but can they equal or better what they did with Johnson’s signature offense?

Brent Key’s run as interim coach last season provided some hope. The Jackets were 4-4, a mark that Key said isn’t acceptable. Key had no previous experience as a head coach or even a coordinator, so that eight-game sample is the only proof that he can lead a Power 5 program. Key said that won’t have much bearing on this season because Tech has so many new coaches and players.

Key will benefit from an increased financial investment in the program, including Tech’s belated embrace of name, image and likeness opportunities for athletes. There are some good players left over from Collins’ time, even with all the roster attrition. I think Key will do better, but then I also figured Collins would win eventually. He couldn’t do it, and so the most recent winning season for Tech football had Johnson’s fingerprints all over it.

A program that once was defined by its offense no longer even has a clear identity on that side of the ball. Tech’s national offensive ranks over the past four seasons were 124th, 96th, 95th and 125th. The Jackets were bad at passing, running and protecting the football. They were better with everything except turnovers with Key as coach, but the offense still averaged only 18.7 points in seven games (throw out the Georgia game because hardly anyone scored on that defense).

Key hired ex-Georgia assistant Buster Faulkner to run the offense with co- coordinator Chris Weinke. Faulkner has been successful as a play-caller at college football’s lower levels, but this is his first opportunity to do it for a Power 5 program.

Early in preseason camp, Faulkner said he was still trying to figure out what the offense will look like.

“You’ve got to always adjust to the players,” Faulkner said. “What can they do well? If they can do certain things, that’s what we do.”

The Jackets should be able to make some plays. Quarterback Zach Pyron showed promise as a freshman before a broken clavicle ended his season. Tech has a good group. Faulkner said the Jackets added some good playmakers and specifically mentioned transfers Dominick Blaylock (ex-Georgia) and Chase Lane (ex-Texas A&M). The long-beleaguered offensive line has a lot of experience, at last.

Tech’s defense made some small strides in 2022 after coordinator Andrew Thacker got full control. The Jackets held the seven non-Georgia opponents to 25.2 points per game while forcing 15 total turnovers. The problems with stopping the run and limiting big pass plays persisted.

“We had some relative success,” Thacker said. “It was very relative.”

That’s true for Tech’s program overall for most of the years since Bobby Dodd was coach. That was Johnson’s point when he addressed grumbling Tech supporters during a 1-3 start in 2018 that followed a 5-6 record. Johnson acknowledged the Jackets weren’t playing well, but said “there is a lot of revisionist history that goes on here, too.”

Johnson felt that expectations were too high for the program’s post-Dodd years. He was off the mark. My perception was that fans weren’t looking for the Jackets to be a national powerhouse like they were under Dodd. They just wanted them to win like they had with O’Leary or, for that matter, like they had with Johnson previously.

At the time, Johnson wasn’t even living up to his own standards. In the end, his winning percentage at Tech (.577) was about the same as Gailey’s (.579) and less than O’Leary’s (.612). Ross was coach for Tech’s pinnacle of the modern era. O’Leary had the best sustained stretch of results since Dodd with five consecutive finishes in the AP Top 25 and the 1998 ACC title.

The Jackets recovered in 2018, which turned out to be Johnson’s final season as coach. They finished 7-6, 5-3 in the ACC, and went to a bowl game. Tech ranked 33rd nationally in points per game, its highest finish since 2014. After four consecutive years of ranking in the bottom half nationally in scoring offense, Johnson proved one more time that his Jackets could put up points with the old-school scheme.

That was a winning formula for Tech. The Jackets have yet to prove they can win without the triple-option. Key gets his chance to do what Collins couldn’t.