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Georgia Tech and the Paul Johnson Problem

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The game against UNC is more than just a Coastal division matchup to the controversial Tech coach.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Forget who you’re a fan of for the moment. Let’s just call you a fan of a generic Power 5 conference team. Here is your coach’s record:

Since he has arrived at your school, easily the most common result he has produced is a first place finish in your division. With one exception, when he hasn’t won the division he’s finished a respectable second or third. He’s taken you to two Orange Bowls, including winning it two seasons ago. He’s won ACC Coach of the Year three times. If I didn’t tell you who I was talking about, you’d think this coach had a shot at a statue on campus, right?

Since you know that the Tar Heels are playing Georgia Tech this week, though, you know that I’m referring to Paul Johnson, and you probably know that there is not a statue-building campaign going on for him at Georgia Tech. As a matter of fact, he entered 2016 with his name on any number of “coaches on the hot seat” lists. In the minds of some, this weekend’s game is at least part of a referendum on whether the Yellow Jackets’ coach should keep his job. When it comes to Paul Johnson, nothing is simple.

Mostly, of course, it’s about the Georgia Tech offense. Oh, that offense.

It’s impossible to understand what’s going on at Georgia Tech without starting with the fact that Paul Johnson is something of an experiment. Every year that his team takes the field, a whole set of questions are asked that don’t get asked about anyone else. Those questions cover a fair amount of territory, but boil down to this: what would happen if you took an offense that service academies use to beat teams with superior athletes and who don’t have to attend military school all week, and put it to work with the kinds of athletes that you can recruit to a Power 5 school?

You probably call the offense the “triple option,” which annoys Johnson. I think he prefers the “flexbone,” but whatever. Call it what you will, the only thing you need to know about it is that it doesn’t look like what anyone else does, unless you count Navy and a handful of FCS and minor FBS schools, which I assure you no one at Georgia Tech does.

In a country that likes to think of itself as embracing people who “think different,” if you do so on a football field, it had better work, and fast. But that’s where this starts to get interesting. If there was a question about whether the flexbone could work in Power 5 football, the Yellow Jackets would seem to have answered the question with a definitive yes.

To hit some highlights: since Johnson’s arrival at Tech, the Yellow Jackets have ranked in the top 10 nationally in rushing yards every year but one. That was last year’s miserable 3-9 season, during which Tech suffered an unusually severe rash of injuries and still eked out the country’s #16 rushing offense (they check in at #19 thus far in 2016). And while the Yellow Jacket offense is unapologetically run-heavy, it hasn’t been a three yards and a cloud of dust product. Very often Georgia Tech is in the top 25 in yards per play (they currently rank #23), and at times is among the most efficient offenses in the country (they were in the top 10 on this metric in 2011 and 2014).

Longtime Tar Heel football fans don’t need statistics to know what that offense is like. Johnson is 5-3 against North Carolina, averaging over 36 points a game against three different UNC coaches. But even worse than the losses themselves has been the UNC fan’s experience of suffering through the Georgia Tech offense when it’s humming. It’s like being in the embrace of a boa constrictor, knowing how this is all going to end, but also knowing you are going to suffer for a good while before it gets to that point. When Georgia Tech has you beat, they make it extra unpleasant. I don’t care what their record is or what your record is; you simply don’t want to play them.

So why is it that Georgia Tech and Johnson seem locked in what seems, at best, an awkward embrace?

You can start with last year’s record in what was easily Johnson’s worst season as the Georgia Tech coach. No matter who you are or where you’re coaching, 3-9 is the fast track to mad people and hot-seat talk. But it’s just one season, and one that followed a positively great season immediately beforehand. Even by SEC standards, that’s a bit extreme. It’s probably true that his personality, which is sometimes described with words like “prickly” and “arrogant,” hasn’t helped him in some quarters. Then again, a college football coach who’s not everyone’s idea of “fun at parties” is hardly a rarity.

Ultimately, the best explanation is probably just that damned offense. The Georgia Tech offense just looks weird. Whether or not that should matter, it does. If you’re winning the Orange Bowl, it seems to have kind of a quirky charm. You’re not going to win the Orange Bowl every year at Georgia Tech, though, and when you don’t, being the school running the experiment feels like being the kid who’s not allowed to sit at the cool kids’ table in the Power 5 lunchroom.

This is not altogether irrational because it is not lost on recruits that what they see play out in Bobby Dodd Stadium bears no obvious relationship with what happens on NFL Sundays. That’s likely a major factor in Johnson’s recruiting classes averaging a rating of about 47th nationally. Signing day is rarely the kind of fan experience at Tech as it is at some other schools like, say, Georgia. If you’re routinely dispatching teams with better players with some ease, fans will gravitate to the “star ratings don’t mean anything, especially for us” line. Combine it with 3-9 and the fact that you’re the only one running this . . . thing . . . and there becomes very little room in the minds of fans between a bad season and abject panic that you’re just doing it all wrong and the bottom is falling out.

Paul Johnson will step onto the field at Kenan Stadium on Saturday with a record of 5-3. That’s already real progress from last season, which for an ordinary coach using ordinary tactics should have cooled the talk about his having difficult conversations with his new athletics director. Johnson, though, is in no way ordinary, and this is no ordinary game for his future as a Power 5 head football coach. His five wins have come against unranked teams, including a narrow aversion of disaster against Duke last week. North Carolina, once a team Johnson beat as a matter of routine, is now a nationally ranked team against whom a Yellow Jackets victory would be considered an upset.

That means that to Johnson, Saturday’s game is not just a Coastal Division matchup; it’s one of his few remaining chances this season to demonstrate to his doubters and to his new boss that he and his offense are built for the long haul. If given an opportunity to embarrass a Tar Heel run defense that has still not shed a reputation for porousness, he’ll surely take it.

The Tar Heels would be wise to prepare accordingly.