When and Where: September 18th, Chapel Hill
There should be no doubting Paul Johnson any more.
When Johnson brought his triple-option spread offense that won two Division I-AA titles at Georgia Southern to Navy, critics said it just wouldn't work at a Division I-A school. Johnson promptly led Navy - Navy! - to five straight bowl games. When Johnson was hired at Georgia Tech, the same critics said he could never make it work at a BCS school. Within two seasons, Georgia Tech won the ACC title and went to a BCS game.
So what will the Jackets do for an encore?
GT, the defending ACC champion, enters the 2010 season with confidence and experience, but a ton of questions as well. Personnel losses were significant and the defense is undergoing a major overhaul. Tech is ranked preseason #16 by the AP and #17 in the coaches poll, and is picked to finish 3rd in the stacked ACC Coastal Division.
Defense is considered the key to whether or not GT can return to the ACC title game, and the biggest off-season splash in Atlanta was the arrival of former Virginia head coach Al Groh as the new defensive coordinator. Tech's defense was often porous last year (though sadly not against UNC), and Groh promptly moved the Jackets away from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. Playmaker Derrick Morgan and his 12 1/2 sacks left for the NFL, and it remains to be seen how Tech's mix of veterans and newcomers, led by senior linebacker Brian Jefferson, will adjust to Groh's new scheme.
On offense, both top rusher Jonathan Dwyer and top receiver Demaryius Thomas left after their junior seasons for the NFL, but senior QB Josh Nesbitt, who terrorized Carolina's defense last year, returns to lead the option. Nesbitt ran for over 1,000 yards and 18 touchdowns, while throwing for another 1,700 yards and 10 touchdowns on the way to first-team all-ACC honors.
It has been said that the key to figuring out the triple option is some extra practice time, and of the seven losses GT has suffered in Paul Johnson's two years in Atlanta, four of them have come when the opposing team had more than one week to prepare, including Carolina's win over Tech in Chapel Hill in 2008. The Heels hope karma can repeat itself as UNC has an open date between the LSU game and when they face the Jackets.
The road to Charlotte for the ACC title game will be a tough one through the Coastal Division, and the loser of this game will already be one down in the loss column after the league opener, so this contest takes on even greater meaning. The keys to this game rest on whether or not UNC's defense can bottle up the option while moving the ball and putting points on the board against Tech's defense. If that happens, as it did for three 1/2 quarters against GT in 2008, the Heels should prevail. If the offense plays tentatively and the defense lets Nesbitt beat them through the air as well as on the ground, Carolina could be in for a long day like in 2009.