Here’s how Georgia Tech’s season will play out

Georgia Tech opens its season at Florida State on Saturday. There’s so much uncertainty that it’s impossible to predict how Tech’s 11 games will go (or if they’ll play them all) but I’m going to try. It’s kind of liberating to make a forecast that is certain to be wrong. I might be able to clear such a low bar.

Tech’s schedule became more forgiving after COVID-19 forced changes. The Jackets won’t play Gardner-Webb of FCS but dropped No. 4 Georgia, No. 18 North Carolina and Virginia Tech (No. 24 in the coaches' poll). ACC media predicted that two opponents added to Tech’s schedule, N.C. State and Boston College, will finish among the league’s bottom five.

But Tech was picked to finish last, and its schedule still includes plenty of tough games. In addition to the yearly contest against No. 1 Clemson, the Jackets are set to play No. 21 Central Florida and No. 10 Notre Dame. Tech is a two-touchdown underdog against Florida State, and Louisville likely will be a significant favorite when it plays the Yellow Jackets.

Here’s my prediction of how Tech’s schedule will play out (assuming, as always, that all games will be played at some point).

Saturday at Florida State (Loss, 0-1, 0-1 ACC)

First-year FSU coach Mike Norvell faces the tough job of rebuilding a program with high expectations. The Seminoles have posted consecutive losing seasons for the first time since before Bobby Bowden arrived. The 'Noles still get their fair share of good recruits, especially at the offensive skill positions and the secondary, but a leaky offensive line has been a key factor in their decline.

The Jackets take advantage of that weakness. They run the ball effectively with good backs a bigger offensive line. That keeps this game more competitive than the betting line suggests. But FSU’s superior depth is the difference.

Sept. 19 vs. No. 21 Central Florida (Loss, 0-2)

UCF became a punchline for its national-title claim following an undefeated season in 2017. The story really should have been about how more than half of FBS teams are locked out of the playoffs no matter what they do. The Knights are 35-4 over the past three seasons, with three losses by a field goal or less, and they’re good again this year.

Tech has trouble slowing UCF’s offense. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who passed for 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns as a freshman, has a big game. UCF’s defense is unforgiving. Tech, still experimenting with its quarterbacks, can’t score enough to keep up with the Knights.

Sept. 26 at Syracuse (Win, 1-2, 1-1)

After two games against superior opponents, the Yellow Jackets finally get a break against Syracuse. The Orange surged to 10-3 in coach Dino Babers' second season and were ranked No. 22 in the AP’s 2019 preseason. But they slid to 5-7 last season and ACC media picked them to finish 14th in 2020.

The Orange were bad on defense in 2019. That’s when they had plenty of experience. Now they don’t. Tech makes hay on the ground on the way to a convincing, confidence-boosting victory.

Oct. 9 vs. Louisville (Loss, 1-3, 1-2)

The Cardinals were awful in 2018 once Bobby Petrino pretty much stopped coaching them. Successor Scott Satterfield immediately revived Louisville’s offense. The defense still was terrible, but it was because of lack of line depth, not lack of effort.

Louisville returns most of the good players on offense and defense, including quarterback Micale Cunningham (no relation). The Jackets have some success running against Louisville’s smallish front. Louisville wins by making more big passing plays.

Oct. 17 vs. No. 1 Clemson (Loss, 1-4, 1-3)

The Jackets played at Clemson in their first game with coach Geoff Collins. It went as expected. Tigers star Travis Etienne had a showcase game. At least the Jackets bothered quarterback Trevor Lawrence a bit.

The Jackets give a better performance this time. The talent mismatch is too vast for the Jackets to seriously challenge Clemson. But they create enough good moments to gain some confidence before dropping back down in class.

Oct. 24 at Boston College (Win, 2-4, 2-3)

BC hired coach Jeff Hafley away from Ohio State, where he did good work as defensive coordinator. To tun the offense Hafley hired Frank Cignetti Jr., a former NFL coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Hafley also landed Notre Dame transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who was a top recruit in the class of 2018.

It’s possible the Eagles will be better than expected by this point. But the Jackets aren’t despondent despite their 1-4 record because the offense has shown obvious improvement. Tech pulls out a victory reminiscent of its spirited triumph at Miami in 2019.

Oct. 31 vs. Notre Dame (Loss, 2-5, 2-4)

Jurokovec didn’t play much at Notre Dame because he was behind Ian Book. Two of Book’s top targets are gone, but he’s experienced (33 games) and can run and throw. The Fighting Irish have a good offensive line. The offense will be humming when they visit Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Notre Dame’s defense, very good in 2019, isn’t as experienced this year. But coordinator Clark Lea has the Irish playing their usual sound, physical style. There isn’t much room to run for the Jackets, who play hard but lose as Book makes too many big plays.

Nov. 14 vs. Pittsburgh (Win, 3-5, 3-4)

This starts a key finishing stretch for the Jackets. They are good enough to beat all four of their remaining opponents. Pitt might be the weakest among them. The Panthers probably won’t repeat their very good defensive performance from 2019. They were nearly as bad as Tech on offense in 2019 and, unlike the Jackets, didn’t adopt an entirely new approach.

After struggling to stop Notre Dame, the Jackets clamp down on Pitt. The offense keeps improving. Tech wins its third ACC game after finishing 2-6 in the league last season.

Nov. 21 at Miami (Loss, 3-6, 3-5)

The schedule change means Tech returns to the scene of its best (and most fun) victory in 2019. There’s an even more sparse crowd than usual because of COVID-19 restrictions at Hard Rock Stadium. But the Hurricanes are energized for Tech after the visitors broke a five-game losing streak in Miami last season.

Miami’s offense was bad last season. It’s better now with transfer quarterback D’Eriq King settled into coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s wide-open scheme. King is the difference as Miami earns a close victory.

Nov. 28 vs. Duke (Win, 4-6, 4-5)

It was strange to see Duke’s offense sputter during the last half of 2019. Coach David Cutcliffe’s teams usually score plenty, but the transition from Daniel Jones at quarterback didn’t go well. The Blue Devils are better now with Clemson transfer Chase Brice, a former Grayson High standout.

This is a hard game for Jackets. Duke’s defense makes them pass more than they want. But Tech freshman Jeff Sims, now thriving as the starting quarterback, is accurate passing and elusive running. He lifts the Jackets to victory.

Dec. 5 at N.C. State (Win, 5-6, 5-5)

The Jackets are riding high on their first winning streak under Collins. They have plenty of juice. But Collins reminds them they were in a similar situation last season and suffered an embarrassing loss to The Citadel.

That doesn’t happen again. The Jackets are more mature. Their offense is functional. Their confident defense smothers N.C. State. The Jackets win again to finish 5-6. Collins, who is getting buzz for ACC coach of the year, promises better things to come.

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