Preseason countdown: No. 26 Ga. Tech

The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets would like to figure out their identity before the start of another season. Are they the team that began the 2011 season at 6-0, rising deep into the Top 25? Or the one that finished on a dismal 2-5 slide?

Fifth-year coach Paul Johnson is looking for improvement from his kids on a macro level, from his vaunted triple-option ground game to the play of a defense that frequently got bullied last fall.

The offense once again should be prolific, as it welcomes back a slew of starters, including senior QB Tevin Washington, top backs Orwin Smith and David Sims and all but one starter on the line.

However, if Georgia Tech wants to get back to its 2009 level, when it won the ACC, it will need a revival out of coordinator Al Groh’s 3-4 defense.

Groh’s kids allowed at least 30 points in each of the final four games, three of which were losses, a damning trend that needs to be reversed as quickly as possible. The pass rush, so impactful in September, went into hibernation for the balance of the season.

The results were predictable. The Yellow Jackets were forced out of their comfort zone by needing to rally back, and a pretty good secondary became defenseless. The school that had gotten off to its best start since 1966, and was as high as No. 12 in the polls, had been exposed. And the D was the most glaring culprit.

Johnson and his program are looking to recapture the swagger and respect they had on the evening of Dec. 5, 2009, when Tech wrapped up its first ACC championship in nearly two decades. Since then, the Yellow Jackets have gone 14-13, with no more than one or two signature wins. With another incomplete season, the school will run the risk of completely obliterating the momentum and goodwill that was stockpiled just a couple of years ago.

What to look for on offense: Just because Washington is the clear-cut starter behind center does not mean that young backups Synjyn Days and Vad Lee will hold a clipboard all year. The staff is looking to add new wrinkles to the playbook, including ways to best exploit the physical running ability of Days and the strong arm of Lee. While the triple-option remains the staple, an injection of some option and pistol looks cannot be discounted in 2012.

What to look for on defense: Improvement from the secondary. Georgia Tech houses way too much experience and raw physical ability to start 2012 the way it finished 2011. A lot of potential exists on the last line of defense, especially if the front seven can find a way to pressure the pocket on a more consistent basis. The corners go three-deep with quality cover guys, Rod Sweeting, Louis Young and Jemea Thomas. The safeties have an anchor in Isaiah Johnson and a gifted underclassman, Fred Holton, returning from a season-ruining injury. The late-season numbers tell a very story of just how good the pass defense can be in the fall.

The team will be much better if: It locates more activity from the pass rush. It was no coincidence that the program’s slide began right around the time that the rush disappeared. The Yellow Jackets had just 22 sacks all year, half of which came in outburst versus Western Carolina and North Carolina. For much of the year, quarterbacks had all day to pick apart a secondary that deserved a much better fate. The Yellow Jackets simply must do a better job of winning the battles at the line of scrimmage, and spending more time in opposing backfields.

The schedule: The Yellow Jackets will know where they stand right off the bat with the possible Coastal championship coming at Virginia Tech on Sept. 3. Going to North Carolina — with the Tar Heels getting a week off to prepare — isn’t going to help the division title hopes, but Tech gets Miami and Virginia at home as part of a nice September four-game homestand. While missing Florida State from the Atlantic helps, going to Clemson hurts. BYU is a brutal middle-season non-conference matchup to deal with, but at least it’s at home, unlike the regular season finale at Georgia. Three of the last four and four of the last six games are on the road.

Best offensive player: Senior OL Omoregie Uzzi. Uzzi is a two-time All-ACC blocker, with an eye on using his senior year to impress NFL scouts. The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder helps make Tech’s prolific ground game go, blowing open holes for the team’s quarterback and running back. He’s strong in the upper body, quick with his feet and smart enough to play multiple positions if asked. Before moving on to playing on Sundays, Uzzi has his sights set on making a push for the 2012 All-America Team.

Best defensive player: Junior LB Jeremiah Attaochu. Attaochu delivered the breakout year many expected in 2011, collecting 59 tackles to go along with a team-high 11.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. He is exactly what the defense seeks in a 3-4 outside linebacker, explosive off the snap, with the closing speed to live in opposing backfields. He plays with maximum aggression, though he needs to learn how to play on the edge without going over it. When Attaochu is in a groove, he’s one of the ACC’s most dangerous pass rushers.

Key player to a successful season: Senior DE Izaan Cross. It’s no secret that Georgia Tech is turning over every stone in its search for viable pass rushers. Cross, the program hopes, is sitting right beneath their noses. Sure, the Yellow Jackets can unleash their linebackers more liberally, but that kind of a move often comes with a price. Ideally, someone like Cross can manufacture his best season on the Flats, allowing the athletic defenders on the second level to support the defensive backs on a more regular basis.

The season will be a success if: The Yellow Jackets win no fewer than eight games. As an aside, the program also needs to finish what it starts. The schedule, which includes four straight games at Bobby Dodd Stadium to close out September, sets up nicely for another fast start. However, tests against Clemson, BYU, North Carolina and rival Georgia, three of which are on the road, will say a lot about Tech’s ability to play with more wire-to-wire consistency in 2012.

Key game: Sept. 22 vs. Miami. The visit from the Hurricanes shapes up as a pivotal point in the season for the Yellow Jackets. It’s a game they should win at home, but if they don’t, the tenor of the season could change in a hurry. Since Tech opens with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Labor Day night, there’s a very good chance that its margin for error in the division will be slim right out of the chute. Failing to hold serve versus Miami would put the Coastal out of reach in Week 4.