Georgia Tech’s Brent Key has the players to win in ACC

Brent Key isn’t taking on a rebuilding job at Georgia Tech. Key already repaired the team’s spirit after it was broken in the final days of the Geoff Collins era. Unlike most new head coaches, Key isn’t coming into this cold. He’s seen the players up close. Key knows the lay of the land on The Flats, where he played for four seasons and has coached for four more.

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The most important reason why the Yellow Jackets aren’t a salvage project for Key is that he has a pretty good player talent base to work with. That’s incongruent with Tech’s 14-32 record (11-22 ACC) over the past four seasons. Chalk some of that up to the rough transition away from the triple-option. Put the rest on Collins’ inability to demonstrate that he can win at the Power Five level.

One thing Collins did right, though, was to increase the level of player talent at Tech. After Hall of Fame coach Paul Johnson ambushed opponents with his specialized offense, there now are more good players in Tech’s program. They just need better coaching.

Already, Key has gotten more out of the same talent as Collins. Key won four of eight ACC games as interim coach in 2022. Three of those victories were against programs that recruit at roughly the same level as Tech or below: Duke, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh. The other was against North Carolina, which does better than Tech in recruiting.

That’s the formula for the Jackets becoming a winning ACC program without the benefit of a great coach leveraging his unique offense. Beat their recruiting peers on a consistent basis. Occasionally best teams with better talent.

The Jackets may never sign a lot of blue-chip recruits, even with Key getting more financial resources than his predecessors. That means the program’s ceiling is below Clemson in the ACC and should be lower than Miami’s if the Hurricanes ever win like they should. The Jackets now have enough good players to be competitive with all other comers in the league.

The perception the Jackets must play above their heads to have a chance in the ACC is outdated. It’s no longer supported by the recruiting rankings, which are accurate in the aggregate.

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As judged by the experts at 247Sports, Clemson and Miami recruit at the level necessary to be national championship contenders. North Carolina and Florida State are on the next tier. Those are the only ACC programs that consistently sign some of the top prep players in the country over the long term.

The recruiting at Louisville and N.C. State is a notch below those four programs. There’s a smaller recruiting gap between the Cardinals and Wolfpack and a group that includes Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Pitt and Boston College. At the ACC’s bottom recruiting tier is Virginia, Duke, Wake Forest and Syracuse.

The ACC has scrapped divisions and switched to a format with three permanent rivals for each team. Tech drew Clemson, Louisville and Wake Forest. Tech lags Louisville in recruiting, but not so much that better coaching and a good quarterback can’t make up the difference. Tech recruits better than Wake. Dave Clawson is a good coach, but his run of good quarterbacks could be over after Sam Hartman transferred to Notre Dame.

This year, Tech’s ACC schedule also includes North Carolina, Miami, Virginia, Boston College and Syracuse. The Jackets have two-game win streaks against both North Carolina and Boston College. They’ve lost three consecutive games against Virginia, which shouldn’t happen. Miami beat Tech handily last season. The Hurricanes were a problem for Johnson, too.

The Jackets have enough good players to beat most comers in the ACC. It takes more than that to win but, as Georgia coach Kirby Smart recently noted, even good coaches don’t have a chance without good players. He was talking about winning national titles, but the same is true of programs with lesser ambitions. That’s most of them in college football’s caste system.

It’s true that player retention was an issue for Collins, but it wasn’t as bad as some high-profile transfers made it seem. Overall, the Jackets have come out of the other side of the transfer portal looking pretty good.

Injuries and transfers prevented Tech from getting full impact of Collins’ best two recruits, quarterback Jeff Sims and running back Jahmyr Gibbs. Tech still has assembled a potentially good group of skill players. The Jackets can win with quarterback Zach Pyron, who showed promise as a freshman, or Texas A&M transfer Haynes King.

Tech’s defense improved after Collins was fired. Key retained coordinator Andrew Thacker. Linebacker Andre White, a transfer from Texas A&M, should shore up the defense’s thinnest position. Some good recruits from Tech’s past two classes are set to take on larger roles in the secondary and along the defensive line.

Key did a fine job as Tech’s interim coach. He seems to have put together a good assistant coaching staff. No one can really know for sure how it will work out. It’s hard to predict how coaches will fare in new jobs. I should know. I figured Collins would do well at Tech once he left the triple-option behind, but his results got worse until he was finally let go.

Collins got the recruiting part right, if not the coaching. Key has inherited the kind of player talent than can make the Jackets winners in the ACC.