In a down year for Georgia Tech, the task of charging back up the hill in 2016 may be getting tougher. Miami coach Al Golden is out. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer is retiring. Virginia coach Mike London may well lose his job. There is the thought that he’ll need to run the table (against Miami, Louisville, Duke and Virginia Tech) to keep his key card.
There’s no certainty that their replacements will make an immediate improvement (or any improvement), but it’s hardly unreasonable to think it couldn’t happen. By at least one measure, each has underperformed according to recruiting rankings. The following is Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech’s annual recruiting rankings within the ACC, according to Rivals, and each team’s rank by conference winning percentage 2012-2014.
A few thoughts
Miami’s 3.0 rank probably doesn’t adequately speak to the disparity between recruiting and performance. Miami hasn’t just recruited at the top of the conference, but of the country. The Hurricanes ranked No. 9 in 2012, 20 in 2013, 12 in 2014 and 26 in 2015. In Golden's defense, he inherited a mess and I'm going to guess has laid a foundation for his successor.
Virginia is kind of an interesting case. London has landed a handful of four- and five-star players such as safety Quin Blanding, defensive tackle Andrew Brown and running back Taquan Mizzell, but the bottom of the class has its share of two-star players, also.
Also, obviously, this is not a perfect chart for a number of reasons. One, the players who were responsible for the winning percentage of 2012-2014 were largely recruited before 2012. Two, recruiting rankings can be taken with a large grain of salt. Three, the winning percentages represent a fairly small sample size. If Virginia Tech had managed one more win, for instance, it would have been in a tie for fifth, which would nearly match up with its recruiting ranking average. (If you’re wondering, Georgia Tech’s average recruiting ranking in that time period was 10.8 and its 16-8 record was third best. Not bad.)
Regardless, the recruiting numbers at least would suggest that a replacement could do better in each situation. Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babock has a history of making solid hires, hiring Tommy Tuberville to replace Butch Jones at Cincinnati in Dec. 2012 and picking up Marquette basketball coach Buzz Williams following the 2013-14 season at Virginia Tech.
Miami is a bit of a mess, and it seems like the new coach won't be a name hire, but there will never be a shortage of talent in the Hurricanes’ backyard. Should the Virginia job open, the challenge of recruiting against Virginia Tech in the talent-rich Tidewater area will be curtailed by the fact that the Hokies will be going through their own regime change. Plus, the money wouldn’t be bad; by a few dollars (relatively speaking), London is the third highest paid coach in the ACC over Louisville’s Bobby Petrino and Tech coach Paul Johnson. UVA AD Craig Littlepage hired London, who has yet to prove a star hire, but also basketball coach Tony Bennett, who was a grand slam.
The upshot for Tech
Should three new coaches enter the division before next year, it obviously impacts Georgia Tech directly. It’s worth pointing out Tech hasn’t gotten rich off of beating Virginia Tech or Miami. Johnson is 2-5 against both. Under Johnson, Tech has cleaned up on Duke and North Carolina (at least until last year and this), going 11-5 against those two schools and then going to town against the Atlantic (16-5).
But if they each raise the bar, staying competitive in the division – let alone winning it, as the Jackets have done three of Johnson’s first eight seasons, plus one other season in which they shared the title but didn’t go to the ACC title game – will be a greater challenge.
David Cutcliffe has made Duke a viable competitor. The Blue Devils had the fourth most wins 2012-14 (behind Florida State, Clemson and Tech). North Carolina is in the driver’s seat to win the division for the first time (at least when not under a postseason ban). At Pittsburgh, Pat Narduzzi looks like he might be able to raise the Panthers’ standards.
The division has been competitive enough, as 6-2 is typically good enough to win it. The perception of the league is that it has been wide open, which is not entirely the case. Since the ACC split into two divisions in 2006, Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech has been the division champion all but one year. It would appear the landscape is changing, certainly this year and perhaps going forward.
Let’s say Virginia Tech lands Rich Rodriguez, who worked with Babcock at West Virginia (though there’s about 6 million reasons why that may not happen) and that the Miami hire is able to restore the Hurricanes into a top-25 team. And Virginia makes a hire who can turn the Cavaliers into a team that consistently hits .500 in the league. And Duke proves a team capable of winning 4-5 games a year. And Pittsburgh under Narduzzi becomes more competitive. And Fedora, with Gene Chizik running the defense, maintains at least some of the level of success the Tar Heels are achieving this year.
In the short term, the rebuilds may play to Tech’s advantage. In the long term, it may make the job more difficult. If the hires succeed, it would be a direct challenge to the level of success that Tech has enjoyed with Johnson. It hardly means it can’t continue, but it will likely take more and better – coaching, recruiting, playing – to keep pace. Then again, what are the chances the hires don't bring about the hope for change?
"Will the next guy meet expectation?" Johnson asked after Golden's dismissal. "The last three hadn’t. You’d think that sooner or later when you keep replacing ’em, you’d look at what you’re doing."
The coaching changes do give greater weight to the opportunity lost this season. It’s not every year that two or possibly three teams in a division change coaches due to underperformance. Tech has yet to play Virginia Tech and Miami, and may well beat them, but has obviously lost the chance to capitalize when two of its biggest nemeses were down.
It hardly means the end of the world for Tech. I remember talking to Johnson last December prior to the Orange Bowl, working on a story about how it appeared that Tech was positioned for continued success in 2015 and beyond. He acknowledged that in a season in which a team plays for the conference title and beats its in-state rival, “then it’s on an upward (trajectory).”
But largely, he wasn’t sure there was much carryover. He pointed out that not many people expected much out of that 2014 team. He repeated one of his favorite insights into his business, that people don't understand how hard it is to win.
“Who knows who’s going to be good in the Coastal next year?” asked Johnson, once again proving prescient.
Tech will be widely ignored next offseason, but an optimist would point to a talented class of rising sophomores, experience across the offensive skill positions and the hope that quarterback Justin Thomas will regain his 2014 form. There is also the reality that the Jackets were perhaps three plays and one or two injuries away from a much better 2015. (Just as the opposite held true for 2014.)
Regardless, as the Jackets attempt their climb to the top of the Coastal Division in 2016, they may find that the summit is a little higher than it used to be.