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Carolina Football Opponent Preview: 2018 Sets Up For Another Georgia Tech Bounceback

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When we’re ready to bury Paul Johnson, he proves he’s our nation’s most prominent zombie.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Paul Johnson era at Georgia Tech is a mystery wrapped in enigmas, wrapped in juxtapositions. Tech fans I know love the high floor, but feel that the Yellow Jackets are FAR from their ceiling— as the triple option (yes, Paul, its a triple option, not a spread option) does not attract many high-level recruits despite sitting on the Atlanta goldmine.

Opposing fans enjoy their volatility— they’re good to spring an upset of a more talented Coastal foe, but Tech week is a perennial toss-up game because of their ability to control the ball and wear down opposing defenses. In the past 5 years against the Coastal, they are:

  • 2-3 against North Carolina
  • 2-3 against Duke
  • 1-4 against Miami
  • 3-2 against Virginia Tech
  • 3-2 against Pitt
  • 3-2 against Virginia

The complete lack of a pattern in their performance is more or less emblematic of what you’ll get with a team designed like Tech’s. Their defense is never good enough to shut anyone down, and their offensive upside (or downside) is correlated directly to their experience in the backfield.

If history is any indication, we’re going to be back to ‘good’ Georgia Tech in 2018.

2017 Season

The Yellow Jackets opened 2017 with a good opportunity against a bad Tennessee team, in a game best remembered for the debut of the Turnover Trash Can. Tech led by as much as 21, but blew it in a 42-41 double overtime loss. They got healthy against Jacksonville St., had a trip to Central Florida cancelled, and smoked Pitt and UNC to get out of September 3-1 despite a missed opportunity.

They started October by blowing another opportunity— a last-second field goal for Miami was the difference in a 25-24 road loss to Da U. After a home win against Wake got them back to 3-1 in conference play, they lost consecutive road games to Clemson and Virginia.

At 4-4, they had to take two of three to reach their 20th bowl in 21 seasons. They finished their home ACC slate an impressive 4-0 with a 28-22 win over #17 Virginia Tech...then got pummeled by 23 at Duke to finish a sad 0-4 on the road in conference play.

They never had a chance against Georgia, and finished 5-6, bowl ineligible for the second time in three years. As we’ve seen over the past decade now, the down year leads to Paul Johnson hot seat rumors and ‘surprise’ turnarounds for the Rambling Wreck.

Series History

All-time, Carolina is 20-29-3 against the bees. That includes a 4-6 mark against Paul Johnson, and an even 3-3 under Larry Fedora.

Of recent vintage, the 2012 68-50 loss in Kenan Stadium was the first sign that perhaps a Larry Fedora team may take a ‘defense optional’ approach. The 2014 game, a 48-43 Carolina win under the lights, was in retrospect one of the biggest wins of the Fedora era— it led to bowl eligibility, which led to the Rutgers debacle, which led to the Gene Chizik hire and the 2015 turnaround. Tech, meanwhile, finished the regular season 10-2, lost to Playoff-bound Florida State by 2 in the ACC Championship, then murdered Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.

2015 was awesome. In the rain, the Heels went down 21-0 early. Marquise Williams’ magical performance (he caught the go-ahead touchdown late in a 38-31 win) was Carolina’s first win in Atlanta since 1997, and was the turning point in propelling the Heels to their own 11-3 season.

What, you think I’m NOT gonna post it?

Last year, the story was similar to that of the Virginia Tech and Notre Dame blowouts: the defense kept an impotent offense in the game early, wore down, and the Heels got their asses kicked.

Carolina O vs. Georgia Tech D

The Tech defense loses six starters, including the entire secondary and two of 2016’s starting linebackers. New coordinator Nate Woody is an interesting hire for Tech, as the former Appalachian State DC has led two top-15 defenses in the past four years. Almost certainly an upgrade over former Duke head man Ted Roof, Woody is used to scheming against superior talent with a gritty, turnover-forcing defense. While turnovers are fairly random year-over-year, Woody’s Mountaineers were +20 over the past two.

As I said, he has some talent to replace. Twins Lawrence and Lance Austin are gone, but half-brothers Bruce Jordan-Swilling and Tre Swilling step into the starting lineup. Along with sophomore Jaquan Henderson, the brothers Swilling were rare four-star recruits for Tech— and all three should be linchpins of the Tech defense for the rest of the decade.

NCAA Football: Jacksonville State at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

While they’re inexperienced in the back eight (their two returning leading tacklers, Victor Alexander and Brant Mitchell are the only returning starters), they are more talented. Corner Lamont Simmons should start across from Tre Swilling, and he has been a more than adequate Nickel corner since transferring from USC.

On the defensive front, Tech is experienced but undersized for a 3-4. Anree Saint-Amour would be better suited for a rush linebacker role, but will have his hand in the dirt at 247 pounds. He was second on the team with 5.5 tackles for loss in 2017. That underlies their problem under Roof— they constantly lagged behind the rest of the ACC in havoc plays from the defensive line. Joining Saint-Amour are Kyle Cerge-Henderson and Desmond Branch— both seniors, but weighing in at 270 and 298...they’d better be fast!

This has the look and feel of a game where Carolina needs to establish itself between the tackles. With a hopefully-gelled offensive line, pounding the undersized defensive line and setting up some shot plays over the top.

Carolina D vs. Georgia Tech O

Its not fun to speculate about, and I bet its less fun to play against. The cut-blocking, lineman-isolating, instincts-out-the-window triple option is the rare offense that every coach playing Tech or Navy has to spend extra practice time on every spring and fall camp.

The key to Johnson’s offense is generally experience in the offensive backfield. They were 9th in yards per play during their 11-3 2014 season behind Justin Thomas and four senior backs, then slipped into the 50’s in 2015 with freshmen Marcus Marshall and Clinton Lynch leading the team in rushing attempts. In 2016, with the same cast and freshman Dedrick Mills, they rose back to 11th. With unexpected losses of Marshall, Dedrick Mills, and the graduation of Thomas, the Tech offense was tied for 54th in yards per play last year.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Duke
Marshall
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Well...they return almost EVERYONE. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall joined Thomas and Josh Nesbitt as Tech’s only 1000-yard rushers from under center, but was their worst passer in the Johnson era. The passing game takes a hit with the departure of Ricky Jeune, but Tech seems to find a decent rangy receiver to catch a couple of long passes a game. Brad Stewart may be that guy— he caught a whopping four balls for 95 yards last year.

The running backs are the key to this offense, as mesh points and pitches have to be well-synchronized to avoid fumbles. KirVonte Benson, Clinton Lynch, and Qua Searcy were not supposed to be the guys last year...but after the departures of Marshall and Mills, they had no choice.

Benson was second-team All-ACC as a surprise starter, and ran for 1053 yards at 5.2 yards a clip as a sophomore at B-back. A-backs Searcy, Lynch, junior Nate Cottrell, and sophomore Jerry Howard were interchangeable, all averaging between 6 and 8.2 yards per carry on 2-3 attempts per game.

If Marshall is more comfortable getting the ball to his guys in space, look out. The Jackets do return three starters on the line, all juniors who will be flanked by veteran linemen.

So, the job for Carolina? Contain, contain, contain. The Heels will be without Tomon Fox setting the edge for the last of his four-game suspension, and the line will need to hold up and force Marshall to pitch, where the back seven can string out Tech’s backs. The depth at defensive tackle should limit the dive play— take away the dive, beat the option.

Outlook

I’d always rather have the Heels play Tech later in the season, when the bumps and bruises of the offense may take a toll. Would I bet on this game? Nope.

Having said that...the hire of Woody could be a huge boost to a defense that has been average for almost a decade. I picked the Yellow Jackets to finish second in the Coastal, and such a finish would likely imply a win in Chapel Hill.

Georgia Tech 38, Carolina 27.