ACC Preview: Georgia Tech looks to reclaim nation’s rushing crown

For Paul Johnson, three-win seasons are virtually unprecedented.

Since accepting the Georgia Southern job in 1997, 15 of Johnson’s 19 seasons as a head coach have ended with a winning record. He claims just as many FCS championships as he does bowl-less FBS campaigns — a two-win season in his first year at Navy and the 2015 season at Georgia Tech. Improvement is all but guaranteed on The Flats, but the Yellow Jackets’ return to Coastal relevancy could meet resistance in a new-look division.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS

ACC TEAM BREAKDOWNS

1. Does Paul Johnson have another top-ranked rushing attack up his sleeve?

It is a testament to Paul Johnson’s consistency that 256 rushing yards per game (eighth-best nationally) is considered a down year. The still-gaudy ground game numbers were the lowest of the Johnson era and just the second time the Yellow Jackets have fallen outside the top-five nationally. The only other instance came in 2013; they finished sixth.

Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack was undercut by the loss of All-American guard Shaq Mason and a surplus of youth around quarterback Justin Thomas. With four of the team’s five leading rushers returning behind Thomas, including rising sophomore Marcus Marshall (654 yards, four touchdowns), and nearly every receiving threat coming back, the skill positions should be in much better hands.

The focus once again falls on the offensive line. For an offense that simply cannot afford to move backwards the Jackets were far too porous up front a year ago, thanks in part to multiple injuries. Three part-time starters are gone from last year’s group and injury question marks still remain. Hulking 6-foot-7 junior guard Shamire Devine needs to become an anchor for Georgia Tech … or else reclaiming that top-five rushing spot could be just out of reach.

2. Can the defense create any pressure?

Fourteen sacks will not get the job done. The Yellow Jackets ranked 120th (tied with three other teams) out of 128 FBS teams in getting to the quarterback last season, and nearly half of that production is gone. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof subscribes to a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy, so hyper-aggressive blitz packages will rarely, if ever, be utilized, but Georgia Tech simply did not make enough plays to get off the field. The Yellow Jackets ranked 92nd nationally in turnovers forced and opponents converted a decent amount (36 percent) of their third-down conversions.

The good news is that the front seven returns most of its pieces. Defensive tackle Adam Gotsis is a significant loss, but a senior-laden line featuring KeShun Freeman, Patrick Gamble and Francis Kallon should hold up better this season. The secondary is undergoing a renovation project, but if Roof’s defense can put a little more pressure on opposing backfields the Yellow Jackets could see marginal improvement in 2016.

3. Has the Coastal Division left the Yellow Jackets behind or was the 2015 season just a speed bump?

In the 11 seasons since the conference split into two divisions, Georgia Tech has finished third or better in the Coastal nine times — winning the division crown on four separate occasions. Only Florida State and Virginia Tech have made more ACC Championship appearances. At the end of the 2015 season, following the Orange Bowl title, Johnson’s program did not appear to be slowing down. However, one year later, the ascent of North Carolina and Duke, Pat Narduzzi’s solid start at Pittsburgh and high-profile coaching additions at Miami (Mark Richt), Virginia Tech (Justin Fuente) and Virginia (Bronco Mendenhall) leave the Yellow Jackets in an interesting situation.

Johnson’s program has more than proven its mettle over the years, but if Georgia Tech is unable to quickly right the ship with Thomas, now a senior, leading the way in 2016, the road could get tougher down the line.