ATHENS — Georgia Tech will throw its hardest punch at Georgia, making the most of a final opportunity to show how much the program has grown with a new staff.
The No. 4-ranked Bulldogs (10-1) have a lot more riding on the contest than the Yellow Jackets (3-8), but that doesn’t change the physical nature of the game fans at Bobby Dodd Stadium can expect.
The game kicks off at noon on Saturday in front of a sellout crowd, Georgia looking to extend their string of wins in the series to three games dating back to a 28-27 loss Kirby Smart’s first year as head coach in Athens (2016).
Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Ken Sugiura provided some insight into the Yellow Jackets’ team and season in a 5-question interview with DawgNation earlier this week.
Fans should follow Ken on Twitter with this link to keep up with Georgia Tech sports news.
1. Kirby Smart says Georgia Tech still has some option elements. How much of that do the Yellow Jackets run and what does it consist of?
KS: Tech definitely runs some option, but it’s not nearly as much a part of the offense as it was with former coach Paul Johnson’s offense, and not as distinctive. First, Tech isn’t under center anymore with the fullback (B-back) behind the quarterback and the slotbacks (A-backs) lined up outside the tackles. Coach Geoff Collins’ team runs a spread, out of a shotgun with a lot of three-wide sets. So it definitely looks different.
A lot of the option stuff they run are the read-option plays that are fairly prevalent in the game, as well as RPO. But the Jackets also run option plays more similar to what they used to run, with quarterback James Graham running to the perimeter with a running back running in tandem and making a pitch/keep read. They also occasionally run triple option out of the shotgun, normally out of a split-back set. This is a very rough guess, but maybe a third of the time they might run option plays.
2. Georgia Tech is 3-8, but with wins over Miami and North Carolina State. Was a 3-win season appropriate, considering what the new staff inherited?
KS: I think that’s probably what a lot of people were figuring. I thought the ceiling was a little higher, given that there are still a number of good players on the roster (cornerback Tre Swilling, running back Jordan Mason, safety Juanyeh Thomas among others) that had won seven games the previous season. As it turned out, this team could have squeezed out one or two more wins, although the three wins were close calls, too.
On the other hand, though, while there was a lot of focus on the difficulty of the transition from Johnson’s offense to something considerably different, the new staff also inherited a roster that was light on seniors and particularly thin and inexperienced on the defensive line. It may well have been a tough year even if Johnson had not stepped down, although probably not 3-8.
3. Many people say the Yellow Jackets have improved throughout the season, so what have they improved the most? The least?
KS: Most would probably be quarterback and offensive line. Tech started two other quarterbacks early in the season, Tobias Oliver and Lucas Johnson, before Graham won the job in the fourth game of the season. (Oliver moved to wide receiver and Johnson has been injured.) Graham’s speed and arm were immediately obvious, but he’s made considerable strides in consistency, understanding the offense and making smart decisions. The offensive line has been dinged up, but the lineup has remained largely the same for most of the season now, which has helped. Also, I think the line has made a lot of progress simply in its ability to play the techniques required by the scheme and understanding assignments in pass protection. That group probably had to make the biggest shift, and it’s taken time, but is getting there.
It’s hard to say who’s improved the least. The defensive line has had a tough time throughout, but that’s in no small part because that group has been beat up by injuries, so they’re pretty young and relying on a walk-on and a lot of freshmen, among others. The placekicking, actually, has been inconsistent, as have the kickoffs. I think the ability is there, but maybe it’s been a matter of confidence. It’s hard to say.
4. What is Georgia Tech’s best chance for an upset, in terms of matchups of keys to the game for the Yellow Jackets?
KS: It would most likely take a series of big plays happening in all facets, because Tech almost certainly can’t grind out a win against this group. Tech has blocked three kicks, including two punts, so maybe there’s a block and return for a touchdown. Freshman wide receiver Ahmarean Brown has continually gotten behind defenses not ready for his speed, so perhaps the Jackets can hit a home run that way, although obviously Georgia has been very good at preventing big plays. Jake Fromm has had some accuracy issues of late, I see, so maybe that turns into an interception or two and a big return. (I recognize that he’s thrown only three interceptions.)
It’s not exactly high-level analysis, but I think Georgia has such a big advantage with its offensive line, I’d think Tech would have a real difficult time getting the Bulldogs off the field without turnover help.
5. As the Georgia Tech beat writer you live in this state and hear all the football talk. What is your biggest question about the Georgia Bulldogs team?
KS: I’ve heard a lot about the defense, so I guess I’d say I’m most curious about seeing that group live. Tech’s offense has improved, but has not been much – the Jackets have yet to score more than 28 points this season, although I recognize that Georgia hasn’t broken 27 since the Tennessee game – but it’s a unit that’s capable of doing some damage. It would obviously be a great test for Tech to see how far it’s come this season.