On Aug. 30, this correspondent watched Georgia Tech beat Wofford, which isn’t an FBS team, by 19 points. I’d love to tell you I knew then that the Yellow Jackets would, on the night of Dec. 31, beat Mississippi State, which plays in the presumably impregnable SEC, by 15 points in the Orange Bowl. But I’d be lying.
On Aug. 30, Tech appeared — to me, if no one else — essentially the same as it’d been since Chan Gailey’s holdovers left for the NFL. Justin Thomas did throw the ball pretty well, but the Jackets didn’t exactly knock the Terriers, who would finish 6-5 in the Southern Conference, backward.
Come Nov. 29 in Sanford Stadium, the same Georgia Tech knocked Georgia backward. Come Dec. 31 in Miami Gardens, the same Georgia Tech — the same but different — knocked Mississippi State backward. The team that didn’t look to be much more talented than Wofford was clearly superior to two of the better teams in The Only Conference That Matters.
Over its final four games, Tech beat Clemson by 22 points, and the Tigers would beat Oklahoma by 34 in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The Jackets beat Georgia in overtime, and the Bulldogs would beat Louisville by 23 in the Belk Bowl. Tech played Florida State, which nobody has beaten since Nov. 24, 2012, to the wire in Charlotte, and New Year’s Eve brought the total destruction of Mississippi State, which for five weeks was adjudged the nation’s No. 1 team.
The point being: Beyond the four teams in the College Football Playoff and TCU, who was playing better than the Jackets at year’s end? Who would have believed that Georgia Tech, which went 28-25 over the four seasons before this, could make a legitimate claim to being one of the nation’s best half-dozen teams? (Baylor would be in the conversation for No. 6, but you get the idea.)
I didn’t see this coming, not even after Tech went to Blacksburg and won for the first time since 2006. But the defense got better as it went, and Paul Johnson’s stylized offense got as good as it has ever been at Tech, and this time there was no asterisk — “He’s only doing it with Gailey’s players” — to attach. These were all Johnson’s recruits. This was all his doing. As splendid as the Tech teams of 2008 and 2009 were, this was his best.
As Tech was flattening Mississippi State, Twitter was dotted with proclamations that the Bulldogs’ performance was “embarrassing for the SEC.” (Granted, the state of Mississippi had a rotten day.) That missed the point that had been should have been made these past six weeks. There should have been no embarrassment in losing to Georgia Tech.
Because those players who didn’t impress against Wofford coalesced into a functioning and dominating whole. Because this became one the best teams in the country. Because Georgia Tech would have been very good in any league.