ATLANTA — Brent Key didn’t mince words when he took charge of a struggling Georgia Tech football program after the team got off to a 1-3 start.

“Number one I was going to be extremely black and white with them, very direct, very open, and very honest,” said Key, who was elevated to interim head coach when Geoff Collins was fired.

“And I wanted them to have ownership in this football team.”

The Yellow Jackets have responded to Key’s leadership, winning four of seven games entering into their noon game with Georgia at Sanford Stadium.

Georgia Tech’s 21-17 win at then-No. 13-ranked North Carolina certainly got Kirby Smart’s attention.

“They’re playing really well now,” Smart said on Monday. “They’re playing really hard now. And I think he’s done a tremendous job at getting these guys to compete.”

The 44-year-old Key, whose playing career at Georgia Tech (1997-2000) overlapped with Smart’s at UGA (1995-1998), would seem to be a perfect fit to take over the Yellow Jackets’ program.

It’s almost “when” not “if” Georgia Tech takes the interim tag out of Key’s title, as he has proven capable of providing a winning culture and managing game situations.

In addition to his success leading Georgia Tech this season, Key’s impressive resume includes a three-year stint at Alabama (2016-2018) as the Crimson Tide’s offensive line coach.

Key said there were many lessons learned coaching under Nick Saban — more than a few that Smart also learned and has applied while building Georgia into the most elite college football program in the nation the past two seasons.

“The organization, discipline, accountability, the work ethic, drive and ability to put a lot more hours than you think you can put into a day, into a day,” Key said , asked what lessons he learned at Alabama that he’s applying now at Georgia Tech.

“But to do all that, you have to be very organized.”

Georgia Tech has beaten two Top 25 programs with Key in control this season, surprising No. 24 Pitt on the road by a 26-21 count in his first game in charge, and then last Saturday’s road win at North Carolina.

Key brings some of that success back to the ability to play physically — another staple seen at Alabama and now Georgia.

“We’ve challenged our team these last two months to become a physical football team, and not just at the line of scrimmage,” Key said. “But also the way we run the football. and the way we stop the run; the way we cover kicks, the way we block on the perimeter, the way we take on blocks in the secondary, the way we finish on the quarterbacks and ball carriers — all of those things.

“It’s something we’ve been demanding.”

Georgia Tech will bring that mentality onto Dooley Field on Saturday as a 33-point underdog, looking to shock the world with a win that would make the program bowl eligible for the first time since 2018.

Win or lose, it would seem the Yellow Jackets have found their next head coach in Brent Key.

Key, however, wanted no part of that discussion when asked when or if he might talk to Georgia Tech leadership about that promotion.

“I’m worried about Georgia, it’s the No. 1 team in the country,” Key said. “It’s the biggest challenge of my life right now, is taking this group over there to Athens on 12 o’clock on Saturday.

“It’s Georgia and Georgia Tech, and that’s why you come to school here, is to play this game, it’s an honor.”