ATHENS — Once again, we turn to the always-dependable Ken Sugiura to brush us up on all things Georgia Tech.
Sugiura has been covering the Yellow Jackets as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s beat reporter every year since 2011 and a few before that. So there isn’t a better expert on The Institute or its mercurial coach, Paul Johnson.
Sugiura also knows a thing or two about hoops. Much to the Yellow Jackets’ chagrin, Sugiura recently followed the basketball team to China fot thePac-12 China Game tournament . So he was there when a few of Tech’s players were questioned by police about a shoplifting incident. All the Yellow Jackets were cleared, but some UCLA players were not, and that resulted in an international incident that Sugiura had well-covered.
We’re not going to bother Ken with those details today. We’ll stick to events closer to home and particularly the 110th renewal of Tech’s rivalry with Georgia that has come to be known as “Clean Old-Fashioned Hate.”
First, a quick refresher on Ken’s background. He’s a Michigan graduate who grew up in Northfield, Ill., outside Chicago. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and three young children. You can read his stories on the Tech page of the AJC.com website, and he’s a great follow on Twitter @ksugiuraajc. He also generates some of the funniest Facebook posts you’ll ever see.
Here are his answers to my questions this week:
1. So, Duke. What happened there? As Clark Griswold famously said, “I couldn’t have been more surprised if I had woke up with my head sewn to the carpet, Eddie.”
Sugiura: That’s a tough one to figure. I’ve covered the team since 2011, and it was one of the three or four most perplexing results that I can recall. Tech had just come off a big win over Virginia Tech and was playing a Duke team that had lost six in a row and was not playing well on offense. Further, Tech was playing for bowl eligibility and first road win. Plus, it’s a league game. The offense started out doing its job, scoring touchdowns on three of four first-half possessions.
The defense, which has generally done better than in years past but has had its flaws, got run over. Duke scored on its first seven possessions, and they weren’t cheapies, either. One of the drives was 20 yards, but the rest were in the 60- and 70-yard range. Paul Johnson summed it up quite accurately after the game. “They went through us like we weren’t even out there.”
What made it particularly odd was that Tech typically doesn’t lose games like that. If you’ll remember, in the Tech-Georgia series, there’s really only one game that got out of hand since Johnson’s hire prior to the 2008 season, the 2012 game. (A game and team that Johnson has referenced this week, saying this UGA team compares with that one as the best Bulldogs team he’s faced.) And it’s been largely the same way in ACC play.
Johnson was mystified/furious after the game, I think. With so much on the line, the defense played probably its worst game of the year. Missed tackles, missed assignments, poor effort, the whole deal. The offense, as the score got out of control and Duke controlled the ball, didn’t do much, either.
It’s just been a strange season, which we can get into in the next question.
2. Please educate all us of tunnel-visioned on Georgia’s season kind of what went wrong for the Yellow Jackets to end up where they are at the moment. Weren’t there some relatively high expectations for this year’s squad?
Sugiura: It’s just been an odd year. Johnson called it “screwy” on Tuesday. Go back to 2016 — Tech finishes with wins over Virginia Tech, Virginia, UGA and Kentucky in the bowl game — the defense was playing better at the end. B-back (fullback) Dedrick Mills led the team in rushing as a true freshman. A lot of key pieces (besides quarterback Justin Thomas) were back. There was reasonable hope that this team could make a run at the ACC Coastal.
Then Mills was dismissed in August (which didn’t prove to be a huge deal, but started the year oddly). The Jackets outplayed Tennessee in the season opener at Mercedes-Benz but lost in double overtime. A game against UCF was canceled because of the hurricane. Tech went to Miami and, in a driving rain, lost by one point after the Hurricanes converted a sort-of fluky 4th-and-10 in the final minute. That kind of set the tone.
The defense has often failed on drives going into halftime or at the end of regulation. Pass protection hasn’t been very good. (Despite Tech being run-heavy, it matters). It rained heavily in three of the four road games, all losses. Meanwhile, Tech has won every game at home. Play overall has just been inconsistent, not just game to game but half to half.
Given what we’ve seen over 10 games, I believe this is a team that, at least on paper, is good enough to be ranked and to be in the hunt for the division and, on its best day, could give Clemson a run for its money in a hypothetical ACC title game. I’m not joking when I say this team has the capacity to be 9-1. But something is clearly missing.
3. Is Tech going to be able to get a make-up game for missing Central Florida? If not, would the NCAA or the bowl association make exceptions for these 5-win teams that lost games to storms this year?
Sugiura: It looks less and less likely. Tech administrators have been trying to set something up, but haven’t been able to find a willing partner. It’s a small pool (teams that for some reason will only play 11 regular-season games or played at Hawaii and didn’t play a 13th game – if you play at Hawaii, you get a 13th regular-season game or Hawaii itself and have December 2 free). Tech will only play an FBS school. (I’m guessing at least in part because they already have a win over an FCS team) And not many are keen on playing Johnson’s spread-option offense with no preparation.
So it looks like the Jackets will have to beat UGA to go bowling, else miss out for the second time in three years after having made 18 consecutive bowls. (I believe Tech and UGA started their bowl streaks the same year.) They could conceivably get a waiver from the NCAA, claiming they tried to get a 12th game, and they also would have a shot as a five-win team as their APR is high, but there’s 78 slots and 70 are already taken. Four more for sure will be spoken for (there’s four games this weekend between teams that are 5-6), and there’s a number of other five-win teams (and four-win teams with two games left) that can also secure bowl eligibility with a win. If they get to 78, Tech (or any other five-win team) will be out of luck.
4. How much would you say Paul Johnson’s well-timed wins over Georgia over the years, and in two of the last three years in particular, have contributed to his longevity as Tech’s football coach. And is all well for him on that front?
Johnson: It’s helped, certainly. The first one in particular (2008) I think gave him a lot of credibility and won him a lot of fans, given that Chan Gailey had gone 0-6 against the Bulldogs. Plus, a lot of Tech fans have loved that he doesn’t back down from mighty UGA and is not shy about poking fun at the SEC. I don’t know that he would have been in any particular trouble had Tech lost in 2014 or 2016 specifically. In the former, Tech was already going to the ACC title game and had beaten Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech. In 2016, the season had already turned around nicely. But, certainly, the fact that he has proven himself as someone who has beaten Georgia is good for his security.
And he is safe. I think the people that matter are in his corner. He and Tech’s new AD, Todd Stansbury, have a good relationship and Stansbury is trying to give Johnson what he’s asked for (new locker room, more staff, etc.)
5. What matchups do you like best that favor the Yellow Jackets against Georgia this year?
Sugiura: “That’s a tough one. I don’t need to tell your readers that UGA is pretty stout. Johnson was raving about the team and players (Jake Fromm, Javon Wims, the running backs, the front seven, special teams, etc.) and I don’t think he was trying to flatter anyone. But Tech’s strength is probably the core of its offensive line. Guards Parker Braun and Shamire Devine and center Kenny Cooper have at times been dominant up front, getting surge off the snap and clearing lanes for B-back KirVonte Benson and quarterback TaQuon Marshall, and then reaching the second level to influence linebackers. Basically, Tech really can’t win if it can’t run the ball (barring some craziness), and I think it’ll be incumbent upon those three to lead the way. That said, Tech doesn’t normally see the likes of John Atkins, Trenton Thompson and Jonathan Ledbetter all the time, guys that are bigger and more athletic than the standard-issue ACC defensive lineman.
My hunch is that this is asking too much for Tech. Georgia is, obviously, a very good team, with a dominant run game capable of mashing Tech’s defenders. If Duke can do it, obviously, then presumably the Dogs can, too. And the fact that the Jackets are still trying to play with consistency and play their assignments 10 games in is troubling. I could see it getting away from Tech like the 2012 game (the 42-10 UGA win that I particularly remember for Bacarri Rambo stripping the ball from A-back Robbie Godhigh just as he was crossing the goal line). The Jackets’ special teams haven’t proven that they can provide a game-changing play, either.
But, then, it’s the same team that really should have beaten Miami on the road and did beat Virginia Tech at home. Tech’s just a baffling team. The Jackets have generally defended the run fairly well, so you’ve got a strength-on-strength situation there. As much as UGA has to play for, I imagine Tech players are a little embarrassed about the Duke game and have bowl eligibility on the line beyond bragging rights. Their win over the Hokies followed another embarrassing loss, to Virginia.
As a few people have said to me, it won’t surprise me if the game ends in a rout in Georgia’s favor or if Tech wins in the style it did in 2014 and 2016. But I suspect it’ll be closer to the former than the latter. Let’s go with — UGA 31-17.