ATHENS — Yeah, I picked Georgia Tech to win. Full disclosure, though: When the Yellow Jackets were halted on fourth-and-4 with 11:58 left, I figured that prediction — like one or two others — was gone with the wind. Georgia had established itself as the better team. The Bulldogs had outscored Tech 20-0, outgained it 368 yards to 243. Talent, as talent often does, was holding sway.
Final score: Tech 28, Georgia 27.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the more gifted team did not win. The tougher team did. The smarter team did. The Bulldogs will spend days if not months if not decades wondering how this one got away, but the cold truth is that Tech snatched it from them.
If we go by ESPN’s win probability graph, Georgia had a 97.4 percent chance of prevailing after Qua Searcy was dropped for a 7-yard loss on fourth down. This was an odd little inside handoff, not a staple of Paul Johnson’s offense. It had become clear — or it seemed to have become clear — that Georgia had tinkered with its defense, which was shredded early, and found a way to stop the option. And when a play that Tech doesn’t run every week or every month goes for minus-7 after a third-down lateral to a backup offensive tackle goes nowhere … well, you figured the Jackets were out of ideas.
But they weren’t. Georgia went three-and-out for the only time all game. (Say this for Ted Roof’s defenders: They don’t stonewall anybody, but they do pick their moments.) Backed up to its 6 — and then its 4 — Justin Thomas hit two long passes off play-action. The game was again afoot. And when, after Dedrick Mills’ touchdown, Jacob Eason threw behind Terry Godwin, whose reaching hands deflected the ball to Tech’s Lance Austin, Tech was positioned to win the darn thing, 97.4 percent be hanged.
When I say that the more talented team didn’t win, that’s not to suggest this game had the wrong outcome. Georgia left the door ajar. Tech stormed through. That’s football. Tech mightn’t have had a Nick Chubb or a Sony Michel, but it had the better team by season’s end. (Hey, it’s why I picked the Jackets to win.) I wouldn’t have thought this possible back in August, but there it is.
As for the coaches: Paul Johnson had a heck of a lot better Year 9 at Tech than Kirby Smart did his Year 1 at Georgia. (Johnson also had himself a pretty fair Year 1 back in 2008, if memory serves. Won here, I do believe.) Not that everything revolves around yours truly, but I picked Tech to go 7-5. It went 8-4, having won five of its final six. I picked Georgia to go 10-2. It went 7-5.
For much of this game, you could see that the Bulldogs had enough manpower to have done better than 7-5. For reasons unknown and perhaps unknowable, they didn’t. They lost twice at home as favorites. They lost to Vanderbilt. They led Tech by 13 points with 6 1/2 minutes remaining and couldn’t win.
Smart’s story has only begun to be written, but this wasn’t an auspicious beginning. He’ll recruit well and his talent base will be restored to the usual exalted level soon enough, but the offense — even though it mustered 402 yards Saturday — was a stop-and-start (or start-and-stop) contraption.
When Georgia needed to run clock and kill the game, Eason threw poorly on second-and-8 and saw the game change. When Georgia needed to sling it long over the final 30 seconds, the freshman with the big arm could managed completions of 8 and 6 yards. Had Smart and Jim Chaney learned nothing from Joshua Dobbs and Jauan Jennings?
As for Johnson: There’s no better way to impress a new boss (who happens to be a Tech man) than to beat Georgia in Athens. If this wasn’t quite the bounceback from 3-9 that Johnson expected — his team was only 4-4 in ACC play — it ended pretty darn well.
Even fuller disclosure: When it was 27-13 and fourth-and-4 had failed, I thought, “This is probably the worst Georgia team we’ll see for a while; if Tech can’t do better than this, that doesn’t augur well for 2017 and beyond.” Then Tech up and took the doggone game. Meaning: Even a guy who thought he saw it coming didn’t quite see this coming. Heck of a win.