ATLANTA - On the morning of Nov. 28, 2009, Paul Johnson was poised to become the unchallenged king of football in a state that takes the sport seriously. He was 19-5 in two seasons as Georgia Tech's coach. That night his Jackets would play Georgia, whom they'd famously beaten, 45-42, in Athens the year before.
Tech was 10-1, ranked No. 7 nationally and champion of the ACC Coastal Division. Georgia was 6-5, having just lost at home to Kentucky. Not since George O'Leary was working against Jim Donnan had Tech beaten the Bulldogs twice in a row - Chan Gailey, O'Leary's successor, hadn't done it even once - and now Johnson was roundly favored to make it 2-for-2 against the hated Mutts.
But Georgia won. The Bulldogs pounded the Jackets on the ground, and Tech's final chance was wasted when Demaryius Thomas dropped a fourth-down pass. For Tech and for Johnson, nothing since has been nearly as good.
From Johnson's 19-5 start, Tech has gone 15-14. (The sweetest of those 15 on-the-field victories - the 2009 ACC championship game over Clemson - was vacated by NCAA sanctions involving Thomas' eligibility.) Tech went 6-7 in 2010, 8-5 last season after starting 6-0. Tech hasn't beaten Georgia since 2008 and hasn't won a bowl game under Johnson. All of which means . This is a mighty big year for Tech and its coach.
The first blush of success has faded. The big names Johnson inherited from Gailey are gone. Tech hasn't fallen to pieces - on Oct. 15, 2011, it was ranked No. 12 in the land, and two weeks later it would beat No. 6 Clemson by two touchdowns - but it hasn't consolidated the gains of 2008 and 2009.
Which isn't to say it's in complete retreat. Tech has been picked to finish second in the ACC Coastal Division, and if the Jackets can beat Virginia Tech on Labor Day night in Blacksburg they'll become the front-runner. (The Tech-Tech winner has taken the Coastal every year of its existence.) Speaking at Tech's media convocation Saturday, Johnson nodded to his opener and also beyond, to early games against Virginia and Miami. “Clearly the month of September is going to be huge,” he said. “We may be the only team in America with three division games in September.” (Actually, it's not the only team in Georgia that does. Check UGA's schedule.) The Jackets have an incumbent quarterback in Tevin Washington, an excellent A-back in Orwin Smith and a defense that has, in two seasons under coordinator Al Groh, made incremental improvement. Johnson called this team the deepest “since I've been here,” but depth isn't to be mistaken for top-end talent.
Going on available manpower, this wouldn't seem much different than last season's team, or 2010's. Once again, Tech isn't apt to out-talent many ACC opponents. If you handed this roster to another coach, you would hope he could bleed out six wins. But Johnson by himself constitutes a mighty X-factor.
He is, as has been noted, a really good coach. He's capable of winning games you'd swear he shouldn't. (Clemson last season is the most recent example, though Clemson offers the flip side of that X: On any given Saturday, it can lose to just about anybody and yield 70 points in the process.) Johnson has always come across as the smartest guy in the room, and through the 2008 season and most of 2009 he seemed the sharpest coach in this state.
But those seasons were a while ago, and the clock's ticking. Georgia Tech has again assumed also-ran status in the not-exactly-top-heavy ACC and, having lost three consecutive in-state collisions, is again staring up at the Bulldogs. This remains a proud and resourceful program, but it could stand a jolt.
That jolt could arrive Labor Day night. (Full disclosure: I think it will.) Even as Johnson tried to downplay the Virginia Tech game - “Is it the end-all be-all to the season? I would doubt it,” he said Saturday - there's no doubting the opportunity it presents. It's a big game on the road against a brand-name opponent, which means it's a prime-time chance for Paul Johnson to remind us he's still Paul Johnson.
)2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)
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