Paul Johnson has a sense of history, and he’s not yet ready to relinquish his program’s place among the Atlantic Coast Conference’s best. As Florida State and Clemson enter the 2016 season as popular national title picks, Georgia Tech’s coach offered a counterpoint to the conference’s apparent new normal.
"We’re 5-4 against Clemson and 3-2 against Florida State. What distance is that?" Johnson said. " … They’ve been in the national championship game and they’ll be preseason ranked, but perception is reality I guess."
The Yellow Jackets are coming off their worst season under Johnson, a 3-9 affair undercut by far-too-frequent injuries and youth, and in an up-and-coming Coastal division featuring the reigning champion North Carolina Tar Heels, additional coaching star power in Mark Richt, Bronco Mendenhall and Justin Fuente it’s easy to project the downfall of the league’s triple-option stalwart. Perhaps too easy.
As Johnson will be the first to point out, the Yellow Jackets are one season removed from an Orange Bowl victory and they’ve played for the ACC title four times in 10 seasons.
"Last year, I think, was an enigma for us. We’re not used to that. In 20 years as a head coaching I think that was my second (losing season at Georgia Tech)," Johnson said at the ACC Kickoff. "So I’m not used to it, either. So it hasn’t been real comfortable around here.”
Lower expectations seem to suit Johnson’s narrative anyways.
"We’ve only been picked to win the thing one time, and we finished last," said Johnson, referencing the 2015 season. "You (media) guys don’t have a very good track record."
Johnson’s optimism is boosted by the return of senior quarterback Justin Thomas, who said he "mastered (Johnson’s offense) about three years ago,” along with a host of playmakers at the skill positions and four offensive linemen who finished the 2015 season as starters.
After finishing eighth nationally in rushing last season, expect Georgia Tech to take its traditional place among the country’s top five running games yet again in 2016.
“We got a lot of depth," Thomas said. "Everybody returned from last year pretty much, and even added a few more that redshirted and had to sit out the year. I think we’ll be a lot better, more explosive."
Still, the Yellow Jackets will need to ramble uphill.
“I was joking when I told somebody today," Johnson laughed, "‘You walk in the room and you look around to see who’s your wins, and I’m looking back at me.’”