Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Paul Johnson reconsidered: For what Tech is, he’s the right guy

Paul Johnson is 3-6 against his team’s biggest rival. That’s a .333 percentage, which is good if you’re hitting a baseball and not bad if you’re a latter-day Georgia Tech coach. Never mind that Bud Carson and Bobby Ross were 2-3 (.400) against Georgia and George O’Leary was 3-4 (.429), if you don’t count his interim season. The series began to change after Bobby Dodd (12-7, .632). This series especially changed with the 21st century. 

Tech versus Georgia by post-World War II decades: 

1950s (Dodd): 7-3. 

’60s (Dodd/Carson): 4-6. 

’70s (Carson/Bill Fulcher/Pepper Rodgers): 3-7. 

’80s (Bill Curry/Bobby Ross): 3-7. 

’90s (Ross/Bill Lewis/O’Leary): 3-7. 

Oughts (O’Leary/Chan Gailey/Johnson): 1-9. 

Teens (Johnson): 2-5. 

Through the ’50s and ’60s, Tech beat Georgia more often than it didn’t. Then the Yellow Jackets were reduced to winning three times a decade. Since 2000, they’ve won three times in 16 years. Gailey was 0-for-7; Johnson won his first meeting, lost the next five and has taken two of the past three. 

Should Tech lose Saturday, which everyone expects, Johnson’s teams will be 3-7 against Georgia. That’s not great. But it’s passable. When it comes to football, the Institute has to grade on the curve. That’s not so much an acceptance of creeping mediocrity as a nod to reality. 

Be honest. How often should Tech beat Georgia? The Bulldogs’ recruiting class after Year 1 under Kirby Smart ranked, according to 247 Sports’ composite standings, No. 5 nationally; Johnson’s 10th recruiting class at Tech ranked 53rd. When, after last year’s victory, someone noted he was 3-2 at Sanford Stadium, Johnson said, “Not bad for a bunch of 80th-ranked recruiting classes – huh, Mark?” 

Nope. Although, to be precise, Tech under Johnson has never had a recruiting class ranked 80th. The actual numbers: 51st, 41st, 43rd, 43rd, 53rd, 70th, 54th, 44th, 60th and last year’s 43rd. That’s an average placement of 51st. Counting Notre Dame, there are 65 Power-5 programs. On the basic of recruiting, Tech under Johnson would fall somewhere below the 25th percentile of Power-5 teams. In 2009, the Jackets finished No. 13 in the final Associated Press poll; in 2014, they were eighth. 

This tells us that Tech can punch above its weight, and sometimes – as in 2014, when it closed by beating Clemson, Georgia and Mississippi State and taking unbeaten Florida State to the wire – way above it. For what college football has become, the occasional 10-win season is the most the program of Heisman and Castleberry and Dodd can reasonably hope to achieve. 

The game is no longer a game. It’s a billion-dollar industry funded by TV and driven by hype and fueled by the talents of teenagers who can exit after three seasons and bolt if they don’t like the idea of playing behind someone. When Johnson’s Gailey-recruited holdovers were gone and his teams had a four-year run of 6-7, 8-5, 7-7 and 7-6, this correspondent wondered if that had become Tech’s baseline. Then it went 11-3 in 2014 and 9-4 last year, going 5-0 against the SEC those two years. 

But we ask: Is that really a new baseline? The Jackets were 3-9 in 2015; they’re 5-5 now. They’re 28-21 over the past four seasons, which beats the 28-25 of 2010-13, but not by all that much. If they lose to Georgia, they’ll have finished a regular season at .500 or worse for the fourth time in eight years. 

Nobody ever wants to play Tech, and that’s because of Johnson and his offense. His guys block and run really hard, and if you’re not careful he can take his 80th-ranked recruits and beat your five-stars. That said, his teams were once capable of handling Clemson – the Jackets were 4-1 against them from 2008-11 – but have, with the exception of 2014, stopped coming close. 

About here, you’re doubtless saying, “Haven’t you written this a bunch of times already?” Answer: Yes. But I’m guessing this part will be new to you, seeing as how it’s an opinion that has, shall we say, evolved. 

For what Tech football is now, Johnson is the right coach. I’m sure the Jackets could find someone who takes recruiting and defense more seriously; I’m not sure that’d make a real difference. Gailey’s six recruiting classes, again via 247 Sports, ranked 53rd, 38th, 48th, 70th, 62nd and – here’s the Derrick Morgan/Jonathan Dwyer/Joshua Nesbitt bunch – 15th. Gailey was a former NFL coach recruiting to a pro-style offense. Even with one exception, his classes bore an average ranking of 48th, which was essentially the same as Johnson’s. 

Tech could bring in Jon Gruden with Chip Kelly as offensive coordinator and never match Kirby Smart in recruiting. The reason Ross could, on the field, beat Ray Goff twice and O’Leary trump Jim Donnan three times running wasn’t because those Bulldogs didn’t have players. (Steve Spurrier in 1991: “Georgia gets all these recruits …”) It’s because that talent was never quite brought to bear. 

Mark Richt changed that. That he was 13-2 against Tech was no coincidence. Smart lost his first game against Tech; he shouldn’t lose many more. The Jackets will never out-talent Georgia, which isn’t so much a criticism of Johnson as a reason for his continuing employment. You’re not apt to beat many teams if you doing the same stuff with lesser players. You have to wrong-foot them. You have to have an ornery cuss as a coach who just might think of something. 

When things break right, a Johnson team can play for the ACC title and maybe up and beat Georgia. When they go wrong, the Jackets are looking at .500 or thereabouts. And here’s what Tech fans have to ask: “Would we sacrifice the giddily good seasons for more middle-of-the-road consistency?” Thought not.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.