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Long live the option, but now we get to see Georgia Tech finally embrace Atlanta

Georgia Tech athletic department

Head coach: Geoff Collins (first year)

2018 record and S&P+ ranking: 7-6 (74th)

Projected 2019 record and S&P+ ranking: 4-8 (89th)

Five key points:

Collins takes over for Paul Johnson, and he’s selling Atlanta in exciting ways. He’ll have a great 2020 class to show for it. The transition on offense will probably be every bit as painful as you imagine: new QB, green WRs, and a coordinator that strives for balance. They’ve got an exciting RB corps, at least! The defensive transition should be smoother, but there’s still a youth movement in place. Tech might start as few as two seniors and all sorts of freshmen and sophomores. The schedule will not help. Tech plays two of the top three projected teams and is only a projected favorite once. This experiment is going to take a little while.

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

For the last few years, I’ve been of two distinct minds when it comes to Georgia Tech, and I don’t think I’ve been alone:

1. Long live the triple option, and may Paul Johnson coach forever.

The limitations are obvious — recruiting difficulties, struggles to catch back up when you’re off-schedule, etc. — but the spread flexbone is a devastatingly efficient offense. And because Tech hired Johnson, we got more than a decade of clips of blue-chip defenders getting fooled, juked, or beaten.

The Yellow Jackets went to nine bowls in Johnson’s 11 years, won an ACC title and an Orange Bowl, and ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 50 every single year. They beat Clemson five times. They beat blue-bloods like Georgia, Florida State, USC, Miami, etc. There were fun moments.

2. Man, it would be fascinating if Georgia Tech had someone who embraced Atlanta as Atlanta.

Because of the nature of the option and Johnson’s own personality, Tech didn’t recruit like you’d think a school near downtown Atlanta should. Tech could have been in the middle of nowhere and recruited at basically the same level.

Atlanta has one of the strongest city brands (if that’s a term) in the country, and Johnson embraced none of it. He was going to run his efficient, anti-social offense, field a mediocre defense, live his life, and win more games than he loses.

Still, there was always the urge to see what the Tech program might become if it was led by a guy who sold it as the University of Atlanta. Obviously Tech’s admissions standards will always be a little bit of a detriment to its football ceiling, and its facilities aren’t going to blow anybody away. But it long felt like there was untapped potential.

Well, now we’re going to find out exactly what kind of potential Mindset No. 2 actually has.

biG Thanks to @BigBoi for the“ATL” for @GeorgiaTechFB EXCITED to watch you PERFORM @atlsuperbowl53 HALFTIME!!!!!#404theCULTURE 4️⃣0️⃣4️⃣ @calvinjohnsonjr @BigBoi @starwars @BroylesAward pic.twitter.com/maPY9RObLr

— Coach Collins (@CoachCollins) February 2, 2019

After a decade of being proudly uncool, Georgia Tech hired Geoff Collins to become the opposite.

This is a guy who created a position called S.W.A.G coordinator on his staff. He first became a national name in college football by creating hilarious recruiting letters that zigged when everyone else was zagging. This is guy who pulls off some pretty wacky stunts with his program to break up the malaise of major college football. […]

Georgia Tech’s bet is that Collins can at least try to make the program cool, furthering the big step taken by finally ditching Russell Athletic for Adidas. In the eyes of both recruits and the community, GT misses a massive opportunity by having not taken advantage of Atlanta.

Collins is blessed with both PJ Fleck’s ability to find an endless variety of culture-building schtick and the ability to recruit Atlanta. After all, as Tech’s recruiting coordinator under Chan Gailey in 2006, he helped to put together the class that Johnson would win with in 2008-09.

Also, Mississippi State’s defense improved from 53rd to 26th in Def. S&P+ in his two years as the sole defensive coordinator there, and Florida’s was in the top 10 in both of his years in Gainesville. (The Gators fell to 33rd the year after he left.)

His head coaching résumé is a work in progress. He took over for Matt Rhule at Temple in 2017 and engaged in an on-the-fly rebuild. A young depth chart started slowly but won four of its last five, then won eight of 11 after an 0-2 start in 2018. He hasn’t yet mastered September (4-6 combined), but has nailed November (6-2).

Any discussion of Collins at Tech, however, is probably going to remain in the “potential” category for a while. Odds are decent that the Yellow Jackets field a pretty bad team this fall. If Johnson hadn’t retired, he’d have entered 2019 looking for a new starting quarterback, a new No. 1 receiver, a bunch of new starters on both lines, and a couple of new starting safeties. They would have been projected to regress, and last year’s team already ranked a mediocre 74th in S&P+. (It was a good time, then, to get out.)

Add to that a pretty significant offensive transition, from flexbone to Dave Patenaude’s balanced-to-a-fault attack, and you’ve got a recipe for a slow start. And that’s before we note that the season begins with a trip to Clemson.

Collins has a top-15 class at the moment, and there’s no question recruiting will be a strong suit, especially compared to his predecessor. But we’ll see if he can engineer success quickly enough to avoid diminishing recruiting returns.

Let’s talk for a moment about offensive identity. This … this right here … is an identity:

“I’m excited about the fast-paced, spread, pro-style offense that we’re going to run here at Georgia Tech,” Collins said in a statement about Patenaude.

That’s a word salad.

The one thing Johnson had above all else was identity, the ability to get everybody on the same page regarding how you’re going to move the football and how you’re going to win games. With all the recruiting chops in the world, you can slow yourself down if your offense can’t find an identity. That was an ongoing battle for Temple and Patenaude.

After ranking 52nd in Off. S&P+ in Rhule’s final year, Temple fell to 90th in 2017, then rose to 76th last fall. Each year was a new quest for an identity, and the Owls didn’t make a lot of progress either year until a good chunk of the season was gone. They did operate with tempo, but the emphasis on balance (they were really close to the national averages in run rate on both standard downs and passing downs) did a disservice because they were much, much more efficient at throwing than running. A revolving door at quarterback both seasons didn’t help matters.

Jordan Mason Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

One has to figure we might see a revolving door this year, too … and at almost every position. Let’s list out what Patenaude and his staff are working with this year.

Quarterback: Last year’s backup, Tobias Oliver, returns, and with his running ability (second on the team in non-sack rushing yards behind starting quarterback TaQuon Marshall) would have made him the likely starter under Johnson. But in the new system, both junior Lucas Johnson and redshirt freshman James Graham, appeared to have surpassed Oliver, who evidently spent a little time at nickelback as well. One assumes two incoming freshmen (Jordan Yates, Demetrius Knight II), who signed up to play for this offense and not another, will get looks this fall, too. Running back: Jordan Mason and Jerry Howard each rushed for more than 500 yards last season, and Nathan Cottrell was dynamite in limited opportunities (362 yards in just 46 carries). Redshirt freshmen Christian Malloy and James Graham could see chances as well. As you’d expect considering the previous head coach, the Jackets have plenty of choices in the backfield. Wide receiver: As you would also expect, the transition here could take a while. Senior Jalen Camp is the only returnee with more than three catches last year. Johnson always signed big receivers, and you figure they’ll probably block pretty well. But the change will be dramatic. Collins signed four incoming freshmen; they’ll have every chance to earn playing time.
Jalen Camp Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports
Tight end: Yeah, wasn’t really a thing in Johnson’s attack. UConn grad transfer Tyler Davis comes to town as almost an automatic starter. He did prove to be a solid red zone threat up north — six of his 22 receptions in 2018 were touchdowns. Offensive line: The transition could be awkward here, too. Including Vanderbilt grad transfer Jared Southers, six linemen return with starting experience, including sophomore left tackle Zach Quinney and part-time DT Jahaziel Lee. But going from flexbone blocking to whatever the hell “pro-style” means in 2019 will be tricky.

As awkward as the transition could be on offense, it could be the opposite defensively. Collins is pretty good at the “coaching defense” thing, and coordinator Andrew Thacker spent the last two years with him.

The Owls maintained top-50 Def. S&P+ rankings both years; only one Johnson defense at Tech could top Temple’s No. 42 ranking from last year, and it was the first one (they were 29th in 2008 — with some recruits Collins was responsible for helping bring to town). Last year’s Tech defense wasn’t nearly disruptive enough, and that was with pieces like end Anree Saint-Amour, tackle Brandon Adams, linebacker Brant Mitchell, and nickel Jalen Johnson.

Charlie Thomas Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Here are, relatively speaking, this defense’s proven commodities:

Sophomore linebacker Charlie Thomas saw extensive action last year, recording three tackles for loss among his 35.5 tackles. Junior safety Tariq Carpenter and sophomore cornerback Tre Swilling each flashed a high ceiling, combining for three TFLs, three interceptions, and 11 pass breakups. End Antwan Owens, linebacker David Curry, and cornerbacks Alani Kerr and Jaytlin Askew didn’t make many plays last year, but they at least saw the field a lot.

Collins enjoys positional flexibility and experimentation, and considering the inexperience and lack of proven entities he inherits, the 2019 defense could be a nothing-to-lose playground.

Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images Tariq Carpenter

Collins brought in a pair of former blue-chippers as transfers — Florida linebacker Antonneous Clayton and Michigan cornerback Myles Sims — and we don’t yet know whether they’ll be eligible this fall. But even without them, there are a few interesting young defenders who could turn out to be difference makers.

Swilling and Thomas lead the list, but safety Juanyeh Thomas, corners Zamari Walton and Jaylon King, linebackers Quez Jackson and Bruce Jordan-Swilling, and ends Jordan Domineck and Justice Dingle have athleticism and plenty of eligibility remaining. Time to experiment.

Johnson does leave Collins with the bones of an excellent special teams unit. Juanyeh Thomas is a terrifying return man, especially on kickoffs, beefy punter Pressley Harvin III didn’t allow many return chances, and the next kick sophomore Wesley Wells misses will be his first: he was 39-for-39 on PATs and 9-for-9 on FGs, including four over 40 yards.

Here goes nothing. After we all got our wish for a power conference team to hire a flexbone master, we now get our wish for Georgia Tech to sell itself as the University of Atlanta. The former was successful but left plenty of room for improvement, and now we’ll find out about the latter. Eventually.

S&P+ is not programmed to consider drastic scheme changes, but it still projects Tech to fall from 74th to 89th overall. And with a schedule that features two of the top three teams in the country (Clemson and Georgia), plus two others in the top 30, that leaves minimal margin for error. In fact, though the Jackets are projected to scrounge out three or four wins, they’re a projected favorite in only one: a week three visit from The Citadel.

We saw at Temple that Collins is willing to take his time finding answers. In both instances, his Owls started the season slowly before figuring things out late.

This is an obvious transition year, and the best-case scenario might be Tech playing better in November than September, scoring a late upset or two, and then signing a top-20 class in February. That’s the most realistic best-case, anyway.

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