Can Georgia Tech maintain its streak of 17 straight bowl berths with a new quarterback and a lot of new faces on defense?
Georgia Tech will have a new quarterback this year in Justin Thomas after last year's starter Vad Lee transferred.
Daniel Shirey / USA TODAY Sports
By Lauren Brownlow
For seemingly decades in the ACC, even before the arrival of Paul Johnson and his flexbone option offense, Georgia Tech has been a model of consistency.
The program has been to 17 straight bowl games, and the teams have ranged from mediocre -- barely reaching that requisite .500 mark -- to very good (as many as 10 wins).
As such, the Jackets have never been awful, and that's quite the accomplishment in college football. Georgia Tech hasn't had great luck the last few years, but it seems like almost every program has a regression at some point and finishes below .500 and thus out of bowl contention.
There are only three programs with as long or longer active bowl streaks -- Georgia (17 years), Virginia Tech (21) and Florida State (32). Programs like Texas, Oklahoma and even Alabama have finished under .500 and out of bowl eligibility in that span.
It's not easy.
Are the Jackets headed for a subpar season under Johnson, a coach who's been at odds with his administration, at time? Are the wheels truly falling off? Or will the offense continue to be relatively steady, while the defense (entering the second full season under Ted Roof) finally rises to that level?
The Coastal Division is far from a done deal, and Georgia Tech has always managed to keep itself in the conversation into late November, even when the Yellow Jackets are fairly mediocre.
Hanging around is often enough in this division, and they've proven themselves capable of doing that.
There are 10 starters back on campus, including linebacker Quayshawn Nealy (a redshirt senior, 66 tackles) and Georgia Tech's three safeties (Demond Smith, Jamal Golden, Isaiah Johnson).
Johnson also serves a dual role with the team, handling kick returns.
Junior D.J. White leads a group of cornerbacks, on the heels of collecting one interception and three pass deflections in the Music City Bowl loss to Ole Miss.
Along the defensive line, nose tackle Adam Gotsis returns and brings back 14.5 tackles for loss (second on the team) and 5.5 sacks (also second).
Senior Zach Laskey, Tech's leading returning rusher from a season ago (85 yards on eight carries) scored seven touchdowns last year. All-ACC First Team offensive lineman Shaquille Mason returns, as do two that started six or more games last year (Trey Braun, Bryan Chamberlain).
Last year's wideout corps returns fully intact -- DeAndre Smelter (21 catches, 345 yards), Darren Waller (17 catches, 367 yards), and Michael Summers (10 catches, 211 yards). Add in 11 of the 14 players who tallied at least 10 carries in 2013, and that's quite a bit returning at the skill positions.
WHO'S GONE/WHO'S NEXT?
Lee is gone, and though he started all 13 games, he had an up-and-down year to say the least in his first full season as the starter. He completed just 45.6 percent of his passes (11 TDs/10 INTs) and wasn't a dynamic rusher, collecting just 2.8 yards per carry on 182 attempts.
Justin Thomas played in 10 games a year ago and completed 9-of-17 passes for 131 yards, one touchdown and two picks. He ran for 247 yards on 33 attempts (7.1 per rush), however, so he figures to be an intriguing, talented option.
Robert Godhigh and David Sims will both be missed in the backfield, particularly Godhigh -- who averaged a ridiculous 9.4 yards per carry and 20.5 yards per catch (he led the Yellow Jackets with 23 catches).
Sims added a team-high 884 yards an 11 touchdowns. Replacing Godhigh's explosiveness/playmaking is going to be the real issue, though -- Laskey is more than capable of being a workhorse back, and there are plenty of options to get carries.
But will anyone be as dynamic as Laskey? The real question will lie in the receiving corps. Waller is intriguing with 21.6 yards a catch, along with Summers (21.1).
Three offensive linemen are gone with a combined 117 career starts. Mason has the most returning starts with 26, while Trey Braun ended the year as a starter and Bryan Chamberlain got plenty of experience a year ago.
Replacing Jay Finch at center will be tough -- his backup Thomas O'Reilly will be a redshirt junior, but redshirt sophomore Freddie Burden is listed as the starter after the spring (missed last season with an injury).
Braun, Mason and Chamberlain are established, but the big question will be left tackle Chris Griffin, listed as the starter as a redshirt freshman.
Chase Roberts was going to compete for that spot, but he decided just a few days ago to give up football after a serious concussion suffered against Clemson last year.
This line can't have many, if any, weak links, and it will need Griffin to come along quickly.
Defensively, most of the line is gone -- end Jeremiah Attaochu (a second-round draft pick), end Emmanuel Dieke and tackle Euclid Cummings.
Gotsis is the only one who remains, and there will be a lot of question marks along the line. Who's next is anyone's guess, though Shawn Green (six tackles in seven games) and Tyler Stargel (one tackle in 11 games) are apparently in line for starting roles.
The intriguing one is defensive end Roderick Rook-Chungong, a redshirt sophomore who has yet to see any playing time after redshirting in 2012 and spending last season recovering from an injury.
Jabari Hunt-Days, a linebacker/defensive end hybrid, was going to answer a lot of questions -- but he was declared academically ineligible. That's a big loss, as the other starter at linebacker (Brandon Watts) also graduated.
Fortunately for the Yellow Jackets, that's a strong position -- Tyler Marcordes saw a lot of time last year as Watts' backup, and Nealy is versatile enough to play anywhere.
The secondary should also be fine in spite of losing safety Jemea Thomas (Round 6 pick in NFL draft) and cornerback Louis Young because of the injured players returning in Golden and Johnson, not to mention the youngsters who got experience.
The defense. Considering what Tech lost last year, it's not entirely fair, but it's what it is.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof is the most recent former ACC head coach (following Al Groh) to attempt to bolster the Jackets' defense. He changed the scheme to a 4-2-5 this year, largely because there are question marks up front and plenty of depth in the secondary.
The Georgia Tech defense had its moments last year, but a combination of injuries and players shifting roles a year ago contributed to a lot of inconsistency.
Still, there's no denying that Georgia Tech's defense is more talented than this year's unit, particularly up front -- and it still struggled.
Will the scheme change help? Georgia Tech's offense has been fairly consistent in the Johnson era -- unlike the defense.
According to Football Outsiders, while Georgia Tech's No. 51 ranking in adjusted defensive efficiency last year was its highest since 2009, the raw efficiency was 86th.
The 2008 team was 38th raw, 30th adjusted, and no Tech defense has been top 50 in either category since.
Even looking at last season alone, the Yellow Jackets started the year holding two powerful offenses (Duke, North Carolina) in check, allowing averages of only 275.5 yards in the first four games.
In the final eight games, Tech allowed an average of 447.6 yards and allowed fewer than 400 yards just three times in that span. Clemson and Miami both topped the 500-yard mark, while Ole Miss put up 477 and Virginia's terrible offense managed 444.
That's not a good look, and if the defense is that porous in 2014, it's going to be a long, long season.
THE SEASON IS A SUCCESS IF ...
This is difficult to say. Factoring in Georgia Tech's offseason turnover, getting to a bowl game would be significant.
But a bowl game, plus a win over Georgia to end the season? That just might do it ... even if it's not very likely.
Georgia Tech should have beaten an injury-decimated Georgia last year, but lost a big lead late and couldn't hold on. The Bulldogs will be better this year, so that looks like a tall order.
If the Yellow Jackets somehow manage to win the Coastal instead, maybe it would satisfy the fans? Considering what's ahead of Georgia Tech, though, eight or nine victories would certainly be a success.
GAME TO CIRCLE ON SCHEDULE
Sept. 20 at Virginia Tech
Georgia Tech has not beaten the Hokies since the year the Jackets won the league (in 2009). Most of the games have been close: Since 2008, the six outings have been decided by a combined 33 points.
Since 2005, when the ACC added a championship game, this matchup has ultimately helped decide the winner of the Coastal eight times.
The exceptions have come the last two seasons, when Georgia Tech won the Coastal because UNC and Miami were ineligible in spite of losing to Virginia Tech, and 2013, when Duke claimed the division title.
Bottom line: As clustered as the Coastal can be, a head-to-head tiebreaker becomes crucial.
It usually comes early, and this year, it will be Georgia Tech's first ACC game -- and it's on the road.
After that, the Jackets will host Miami and Duke before traveling to UNC and Pittsburgh.
With a win over Va. Tech, Georgia Tech might be in prime position in the Coastal early on, needing only to defend its home field for two weeks, before two winnable games on the road -- all against Coastal foes.
Virginia Tech will be coming off a two-game stretch at Ohio State and East Carolina at home, and there's no bye week for the Hokies to prepare against the flexbone.
These games have always been close. It's out there for the Jackets. This game could be the difference between Georgia Tech winning five or more ACC games ... or perhaps just three or four.
PREDICTION: 6-6 (3-5 ACC)
For 19 straight years, Georgia Tech has managed a .500 record or better in ACC play. It's not like this particular Georgia Tech team is the worst in two decades -- but the rest of the Coastal Division has, more or less, raised up around it.
Only one Coastal team shouldn't be competitive this year (Virginia).
A bad year for Georgia Tech to be rebuilding on both sides of the ball somewhat, especially since there's just little to no margin for error in a division that perennially ends in a cluster of teams tied with the same ACC record.
In the first two years under Johnson, Georgia Tech was 10-3 in games decided by a score or less, including 5-1 during the ACC Championship season in 2009.
From 2010 on, though, the Yellow Jackets are 6-12 in one-score games. Of course, in the first two seasons under Johnson, Georgia Tech was 20-7. In essence, half their wins came by a score or less; and more than half of their losses ended the same way.
In the last four seasons, though, Georgia Tech is 28-25 and just six wins have been by single digits (compared to 12 losses). So, maybe some luck is due to swing the Yellow Jackets' way?
Almost every game on the Yellow Jackets' schedule looks simultaneously winnable and losable. Assuming they fall to Clemson and Georgia, that's just two certain losses.
Miami will be a tough game, but it's at home.
Virginia Tech and UNC are on the road, but Georgia Tech's had success against both teams (even if it doesn't show on the scoreboard in the form of a win against the Hokies).
But the stretch of Virginia Tech (road), Miami, Duke, North Carolina (road) and Pittsburgh (road) -- all without a bye week -- would be tough for any team, much less a young one reworking its defense and breaking in a new quarterback.
Tough to count out the Jackets, but ultimately this year might end the streak of .500 in ACC play.