It's a screwy week, with the Thursday night game, so we're doing things a little bit out of order. And my apologies, but I'm not going to be able to fit a live chat in this week.
I'm posting this very extensive Q&A with Ken Sugiura of the Atlanta Journal Constitution on the road to Atlanta. We should have a podcast up for you a little bit later today.
AB: This was a team that was picked to win the Coastal but instead will need to have to win out to become bowl eligible. The schedule obviously did the Yellow Jackets no favors, but what exactly went wrong this year?
KS: A few things. Even with four returning starters, the offensive line, which helped the Yellow Jackets lead the nation in rushing last year and tie an NCAA record for third-down conversion rate, has not been nearly as effective without All-American guard Shaquille Mason. Miscommunication, missed assignments and weak pass protection.
Obviously, without a strong line, the run (and pass) game suffers. Then, there was the school of thought that, while nearly all of the offensive skill players were graduating, you still had quarterback Justin Thomas, and he could make the offense run. That hasn't turned out to be the case. The inexperience has shown, whether it's routes being run the wrong way, poor ball security, ineffective perimeter blocking. Plus, some of the A-backs (slotbacks) who were expected to be the biggest playmakers have been out either the whole season or large parts of it, which has been critical.
The defense brought back eight returning starters and was being counted on to hold down the fort, but has been inconsistent and given up too many big plays. Four-man pass rush hasn't been effective, and blitzes have not gotten home frequently enough. The offense has needed help with field position, and special teams hasn't been productive for the most part in that regard and others.
Finally, this team hasn't had whatever it is -- moxie, luck, confidence -- to make plays when it's counted. The considerable exception of the blocked field goal return for a touchdown against FSU, a lot of the breaks that went for Georgia Tech last year on its way to the Orange Bowl have gone against them.
That said, and this can probably be said of most seasons for most teams, but Georgia Tech is probably three or four plays away from being 6-3 instead of 3-6. They're also one play away from being 2-7, though. And they were maybe three plays away last year from being 8-5 (including the win over Virginia Tech).
AB: Quarterback Justin Thomas' stats are down a little bit this year, especially rushing the ball. Is he the same player with just less help or has he taken a step back too?
KS: I think it's both. As Hokies fans may remember, DeAndre Smelter was a phenomenal wide receiver -- knew how to get open, great ball skills, clutch, great blocker -- and Thomas misses him sorely. Last season's A-backs weren't stars, but were tough and smart. The same is true of the B-backs (fullbacks).
Thomas could count on them, and the line, and it made him that much better. I think he's pressing and forcing plays because he's the guy, but also he's not been as consistent with his reads on the option (it seems like defenses have had success with different looks to give him trouble in that regard) and he's not doing as well with ball security.
Further, it seems like whenever he drops back to pass, he's been running for his life. He's a gamer, and can hit a 60-yard run if he gets an opening or put the ball on a dime, but he and the offense together have not been the same. This is without question the least effective offense that Paul Johnson has had in his eight seasons at Georgia Tech.
AB: Defensively, how big of a loss is defensive tackle Adam Gotsis? Who do the Yellow Jackets turn to on the interior line?
KS: It's a killer. He is out for the season after a knee injury suffered in the last game (against Virginia) and also missed the final three quarters of the North Carolina game with a targeting penalty, and I feel reasonably confident that Georgia Tech would have won both with him in the game, or at least had a significantly better chance to win games that were both decided by one possession. He is their best defensive player and probably this season has been the best player overall. Relentless, smart, productive.
What hurts doubly is that one other tackle in the three-man tackle rotation, Jabari Hunt, will be serving the second game of a two-game suspension for a violation of team rules. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof used the Nos. 4 and 5 tackles, Kyle Cerge-Henderson and Francis Kallon, sparingly, but now they'll be getting plenty of playing time.
In no small part because of the vulnerability at tackle, Virginia ran for a season high 233 yards two Saturdays ago, which was also Tech's season high. Coaches actually wanted to redshirt Cerge-Henderson, a true freshman, but he was forced into action midway through the season and now he'll be starting. I'd expect Scot Loeffler to test the middle early
AB: This defense has struggled against almost every decent opponent but Florida State this year. What did Georgia Tech do that game that was so effective? And can the Yellow Jackets duplicate that performance again?
KS: Mostly, Georgia Tech played a full game of how it's capable of playing. Roof's first priority (like most coordinators, I imagine) is to stop the run. Led by Gotsis, the front did an excellent job of filling gaps and holding the point. Ends KeShun Freeman and Roderick Rook-Chungong set the edge well, forcing Dalvin Cook laterally. The defense rallied to the ball well to limit big plays. Gotsis also had a pretty strong pass rush game and rattled quarterback Everett Golson. And another big part of it was that the offense controlled the ball to limit possessions.
Could they do it again? Without Gotsis (and Hunt), it'll be tough. That said, it's still a largely veteran defense and to me, the issue with the defense hasn't been lack of ability as much as inconsistency. One thing Georgia Tech has going for it is that it seems to rise to the occasion for home night games (i.e., Florida State), and the Jackets have played better at home than on the road. But I wouldn't say I'm counting on it, especially, again, without Gotsis.
AB: I know there's a 5-7 loophole where teams like Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech could still make a bowl game, but to technically get bowl eligible the Yellow Jackets will have to win out to make the postseason. Is this team in its current state capable of that?
KS: Yes, but it wouldn't be easy, obviously. Except for the Virginia game, the team has given good effort and Johnson has been satisfied with the way players have practiced, which to me is a significant indicator that they're still in it mentally and emotionally. So as long as there's that, there's a chance. I think having the open date helps -- they were pretty beat up -- and maybe it re-sets things a little bit. Plus, except for the Clemson game, the Jackets have been competitive against the ACC, even in losing, so it's not like they go into each game with no chance.
The Virginia Tech game is winnable, especially at home, Miami isn't exactly a formidable opponent and, while Georgia has held the upper hand for a long time, the games are usually pretty competitive, and the Bulldogs have their own problems. Plus, that's at home, too.
However, it would require them to play at a higher level for a longer stretch than they have at any point this season. I think it's possible, but I wouldn't count on it.