Why I’m still buying that Geoff Collins can win at Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins instructs players during the second half Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, against Northern Illinois at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins instructs players during the second half Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, against Northern Illinois at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Geoff Collins is a good salesman. That’s a compliment because selling is a big part of the job for college football coaches. They must convince their constituents — players, fans, boosters and bosses — to buy what they are offering. The evidence Collins has done that at Georgia Tech includes recruiting success and the resulting optimism he injected into the program.

Collins knows how to coach defense. He produced good results as coordinator for Mississippi State and Florida. As Temple head coach, Collins took over a program that had been winning and, after some early stumbles, kept it going. His Owls were 11-5 in the American Athletic over two seasons.

But we don’t know whether Collins can build a winning program. Matt Rhule had done that work for Temple when Collins got the job. We don’t know if Collins can win as a head coach at Tech’s level. It doesn’t help that his Jackets have lost four of five games against opponents that don’t belong to a Power 5 conference.

I believed Collins was a good hire for the Jackets. I’m still buying his ability to make them winners in the post-option era. I understand if, after last weekend, you believe that makes me a dupe. I thought the Jackets were going to blow out Northern Illinois. Man, was I wrong.

Three days later, Collins, the good salesman, didn’t seem interested in making his pitch directly to Tech’s supporters. The question: What would Collins say to fans unhappy about Saturday’s home loss to Northern Illinois and the general direction of the program? Collins paused for about 12 seconds, fixing his glare on the questioner, before answering:

“I’ve addressed how much confidence I have in this team, these coaches. I’m excited for Saturday (vs. Kennesaw State). Lessons learned from the game, so we can apply (them) and just taking the next step every single week in the program to get better.”

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much what Collins says publicly. It’s results, not talk, that will convince outsiders that Collins has the Jackets on the right path. There are good reasons to be pessimistic about their fortunes.

The season-opening loss deflated the optimism accumulated during the summer. The Jackets may not be favored in another game after Saturday. But the reason why I can’t write off the season, or Collins’ ability as Tech coach, is that his Jackets have won regularly when they are expected to lose.

According to the Odds Shark database, Tech has won nine times as the betting underdog since 2016. Collins owns five of those victories. He did it with a roster still making the painful transition from triple-option offense and afterthought defense. Now Tech has better players, and the option is further behind.

Collins’ Jackets have punched above their weight plenty of times. Why can’t they surprise us again, in a good way? They’ll get plenty of chances to do it.

The Jackets are at Clemson on Sept. 18, followed by North Carolina at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They close the season at Notre Dame and vs. Georgia. Tech isn’t built to beat those teams. Upsets likely will have to come against the rest of the schedule.

Pitt, Virginia Tech and Boston College are set to come to Bobby Dodd Stadium. Tech is at Duke, Virginia and Miami. Let’s assume the Jackets beat Kennesaw State and don’t shock any heavyweight opponents. Then they’d need to win half of the other six games to improve on their win total from 2019 and ‘20.

I’m not going to overreact to the loss to Northern Illinois, even as I concede that it’s not the first time the Jackets fell on their face with Collins as coach. The problem for his Jackets is losing when they are expected to win big.

Tech was favored by 19 points over Northern Illinois. The Jackets were favored by at least that many points in 30 games since 1998. They lost three times. Collins owns two of them. Take your pick of which defeat was worse.

The Jackets lost to The Citadel, which plays at the FCS level (betting lines for FBS vs. FCS games are rarely offered and so don’t reflect a consensus, but obviously Tech should have been heavily favored). Northern Illinois was 0-6 in the Mid-American last season, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the Huskies will be bad this season. They made some good plays against Tech.

Tech has been favored in only our games under Collins. It won the first, vs. South Florida, before losing the last three. Maybe the new-era Jackets still are learning how to win when it’s expected.

Said Collins: “There are so many things that you’ve got to address, and you’ve got to build, and you’ve got to experience together. And the last part is finding a way to win.”

That’s the hardest part for Collins. The thing about being a good salesman is that people catch on if claims about the product don’t hold up. There’s a long list of things that Collins and his staff said would be better this season. Most of them looked the same against Northern Illinois.

It was an ugly loss, but, again I go back to Tech’s upset victories with Collins. The best among them: winning as 18-point underdogs at Miami in 2019 and as 13-point ‘dogs in Tallahassee to begin last season. The Jackets rarely win at either place. Collins scored stirring road victories while outmanned and still moving on from the option.

I noted Tech’s three losses as huge favorites since 1998. The other defeat, at home to Middle Tennessee State in 2012, is on Paul Johnson’s ledger. By that point Johnson already had a Coastal Division title and had a victory at Georgia and two against Clemson. He’d demonstrated he could win at Tech, so the bad loss could be viewed as a blip.

Collins doesn’t have the same currency here. He’s got a good track record and a vision to sale.

“Everywhere I have been, everywhere this staff has been, we have built things and found ways to get it done,” Collins said Tuesday. “And that’s what is going to happen (here). However long it takes, it’s going to be different at every place.”

All reasonable observers understood it would take time. Now it’s Year 3. It’s not unreasonable for Tech backers to expect the team to handle Northern Illinois at home. Failing to do so means that, to improve their season results, the Jackets will have to beat some teams they aren’t supposed to beat.

Tech has done that plenty with Collins as coach. That’s why I’m still buying his ability to lead Tech, while hoping I don’t later have remorse.