I know what you’re saying: Georgia Tech lost consecutive games last season and went on to win the ACC Coastal Division, almost win the ACC writ large, win the Orange Bowl, finish 11-3 and beat two SEC opponents along the way. If it happened then, why can’t it happen now?
Because last year’s Jackets were a better team facing a softer schedule. This year’s Jackets will have to upset somebody to go 8-4.
Another Coastal title is possible because it’s the Coastal and nobody looks good. Duke lost to Northwestern. Virginia Tech lost to East Carolina yet again. Virginia has lost three times. North Carolina lost to South Carolina, which has already lost twice. Pitt lost to Iowa, which is undefeated but hasn’t beaten anybody of note. Miami hasn’t lost and actually beat Nebraska, but nobody’s ready to crown the ‘Canes just yet. (That game against Nebraska? Miami wasted a 23-point fourth-quarter lead.) As Jared Shanker of ESPN notes: No Power Five division has more losses than the Coastal’s 10.
Back to the Jackets: After starting last season 5-0 with wins over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and Miami at the Flats, they lost in Weeks 6 and 7 to Duke and North Carolina. This time Tech lost to Notre Dame and Duke in Weeks 3 and 4. An optimist would say, “Hey, they got the L’s out of their system even sooner, and only one was a conference loss. No problem!”
Here’s the thing, though. Tech visits Clemson on Oct. 10 and plays host to Florida State a fortnight later. Big problem.
(No, we don’t know exactly how good the Tigers and the Seminoles are, either. But they remain the ACC’s most talented teams, and between them they’ve won the past four conference championships.)
A year ago, Tech came off the two losses and plopped into the soft midsection of its schedule. The Jackets got Pitt, which would finish 6-7; then Virginia, which would finish 5-7, and then N.C. State, which would finish 8-5 but 3-5 in ACC play. Tech won those three games by an aggregate score of 147-61.
A year later, Tech’s next three games after consecutive losses are against North Carolina, which is 3-1; Clemson, which is 3-0, and Pitt, which is 2-1. Then comes FSU. Later will come Virginia Tech, which some people — I’m not among them — believe will take the Coastal, and Miami, of which I remain leery. Then, two days after Thanksgiving, will come Georgia, which could well be bound for the SEC title tilt and maybe the College Football Playoff.
I picked the Jackets to go 9-3 and win the Coastal, but that was without a loss at Duke. More to the point, it was also without the offensive collapses against the first two decent opponents on the schedule. Tech was simply outmanned in South Bend, which was something Tech never was anywhere last season — not against Clemson or FSU, not against Georgia or Mississippi State.
The absence of almost everyone who handled the ball last season save Justin Thomas has begun to show. The Jackets’ starting B-back is Patrick Skov, a Stanford transfer who rushed 14 times for 25 yards in three seasons with the Cardinal. Nothing against Skov, but he’s not Zach Laskey or Synjyn Days. And there’s no receiver who yet compares to DeAndre Smelter or Darren Waller. The upshot is that Thomas has to do everything, and he can’t do everything.
In two games against real competition, Tech has averaged 326.5 total yards, meaning rushing and passing. (And 127 of those yards came after Notre Dame took a 30-7 lead.) A year ago, Tech averaged 342.1 yards rushing — just on the ground, against everybody. As sleek as Paul Johnson’s offense can be, personnel does matter. The Jackets’ personnel isn’t what it was last season.
Neither is the schedule. I still won’t rule out a Coastal repeat — it is, after all, the Coastal — but I’m thinking I overclubbed with that 9-3 projection. Be honest: Do you really see this team winning seven of the next eight?