CFN: 2009 Georgia Tech Preview

If last year was supposed to be a messy transition period, and the team went 9-4, what does that make this year?

Head coach: Paul Johnson
2nd: year: 9-4
13th year overall: 116-43
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 29, Def. 27, ST 5
Lettermen Lost: 25
Ten Best Tech Players
1. RB Jonathan Dwyer, Jr.
2. S Morgan Burnett, Jr.
3. DE Derrick Morgan, Jr.
4. WR Demaryius Thomas, Jr.
RB Roddy Jones, Soph.
6. LB Sedric Griffin, Jr.
7. OG Cord Howard, Sr.
8. LB Cooper Taylor, Soph.
9. CB Mario Butler, Jr.
10. RB Anthony Allen, Jr.

2009 Schedule
CFN Prediction:
2009 Record: 0-0

9/5 Jacksonville St
9/10 Clemson
9/17 at Miami
9/26 North Carolina
10/3 at Miss State
10/10 at Florida St
10/17 Virginia Tech
10/24 at Virginia
10/31 at Vanderbilt
11/7 Wake Forest
11/14 at Duke
11/28 Georgia

2008 Schedule:
CFN Prediction
: 6-6
2008 Record: 9-4

8/28 Jacksonville St W 41-14
9/6 at Boston Coll W 19-16
9/13 at Virginia Tech L 20-17
9/20 Mississippi St W 38-7
10/4 Duke W 27-0
10/11 Gardner-Webb W 10-7
10/18 at Clemson W 21-17
10/25 Virginia L 24-17
11/1 Florida State W 31-28
11/8 at North Carolina L 28-7
11/15  OPEN DATE
11/20 Miami W 41-23
11/29 at Georgia W 45-42
Chick-fil-A Bowl
12/31 LSU L 38-3

If last year was supposed to be a messy transition period, and the team went 9-4, what does that make this year?

By all accounts, 2008 was expected to be an awkward season for the Yellow Jackets. The coaching staff was new. The system on both sides of the ball was new. And there were divots just about everywhere on the depth chart, including special teams. It all added up to a rebuilding year, yet Tech went 9-4, stayed in the Coastal Division hunt all season, and snapped a seven-year skid versus Georgia. In all, it was a banner debut for head coach Paul Johnson, ratcheting up expectations for the 2009 season.

With 17 starters back and the implementation of the triple-option nearly completed, the Yellow Jackets have become a very trendy choice in the ACC. And why not? Even with an imperfect cast, Johnson wasted no time showing that his throwback offense still had relevance and that his kids had the resiliency to win close games. Those were two huge hurdles that many believed might take years to clear. Now, with Johnson having a little wind at his back and two classes filled with his type of players, there’s no telling how far he can take this program. Rest assured, there’ll be no sneaking up on anyone this fall.

Like just about everyone this time of year, there are holes that need to be filled, but the program is way ahead of where it was last summer. That’s troubling news for an Atlantic Coast Conference that isn’t quite ready to handle Jonathan Dwyer, Roddy Jones, and the rest of the buzzsaw ground game. If Georgia Tech can rebuild the defensive line and get more production from Josh Nesbitt at quarterback, Johnson and his staff will be ready to put their blueprint for success into just their second season on the Flats.

What to look for on offense: More opportunities in the passing game. While the triple-option remains the bread-and-butter of this attack, the coaching staff realizes there are a handful of chances to burn defenses on long balls through the air. And it plans to exploit them whenever possible. Forget the dink and dunk passing game. Georgia Tech wants to really make defenses pay, when they sell out to stop the run. Even if that means just two or three connections downfield between Josh Nesbitt and Demaryius Thomas, it’ll be enough to get the team in scoring position and keep defenses on their heels.  

What to look for on defense: The hunt for new leaders. Georgia Tech didn’t just lose a handful of starters with the departures of Vance Walker, Darryl Richard, Michael Johnson, and Jahi Word-Daniels. It also lost some of the vocal leaders and catalysts for the defense. The Yellow Jackets will need someone new to step into those voids and help keep the momentum going. In particular, DE Derrick Morgan, LB Sedric Griffin, and S Morgan Burnett are being looked at as the new leaders for a unit that’ll have a bunch of underclassmen on the two-deep.

The team will be much better if Josh Nesbitt becomes Eric Crouch. Okay, he doesn’t need to be that good, but he does need to take another stride toward becoming the next explosive thing in an option quarterback. Nesbitt was average last year, but in his defense, everything about the system was new. In Season 2, he ought to be better at making the right reads and getting the ball in the hands of the playmakers. If so, this offense has the weapons, like Jonathan Dwyer, Roddy Jones, and Demaryius Thomas, to stay ahead of ACC defenses trying to crack its code. 

The Schedule: The Yellow Jackets will be looking to make a run in the SEC race facing Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Georgia, and on the plus side, the one home game of the three is against the Bulldogs (the good ones). The team will know where it stands early on with the ACC opener against Clemson followed up by a trip to Miami and a huge home game against North Carolina. Survive that stretch at 2-1, at worst, and the ACC title will be in play. Virginia Tech has to come to Atlanta, but that's the home oasis in a five week stretch with road trips to Mississippi State, Florida State, Virginia and Vanderbilt sandwiched around it. The week off comes too late in the season to do much good, but it also comes at the end of the easiest portion of the slate, at least competition-wise. The team will be road weary at that point having played five road games in seven weeks.

Best Offensive Player
: Junior RB Jonathan Dwyer. Dwyer was going to be a superstar no matter what offense was being run in Atlanta. The installation of the option just hastened the process. A 6-0, 228-pounder, who’ll knife through holes and get to top gear in a hurry, he’s a long ball threat whenever the line gives him proper daylight. As comfortable running through defenders as he is jetting past them, he parlayed 1,395 yards rushing and 13 total touchdowns into ACC Player of the Year honors. 

Best Defensive Player: Junior rover Morgan Burnett. Tech’s do-everything safety is priming for another season of All-American recognition. A rarity among defensive backs, he defends the run like a linebacker and will cover receivers like a lockdown corner. Literally. It’s that unique combination of skills that led the future draft choice to a team-high 93 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 15 pass breakups, and seven interceptions. 

Key players to a successful season: Defensive tackles Jason Peters and Ben Anderson. The interior of the defensive line isn’t the only concern heading into the season, but it is the biggest. Losing Vance Walker and Darryl Richard to the NFL leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the line that’s going to invite opposing offenses to run the ball right at the Yellow Jacket D. If Tech is unable to prevent long, clock-milking drives, its high-powered offense is going to be wasted on the sidelines.   

The season will be a success if ... Georgia Tech wins 10 games for the first time since 1998. It won’t be easy, but it is within reach now that the offensive and defensive systems have begun to set in Paul Johnson’s second year. While an ACC championship is obviously the goal, falling short will not make the season a disappointment. Remember, this is still a very young football team, and Virginia Tech is a consensus favorite to cop a third straight league crown.

Key game: Oct. 17 vs. Virginia Tech. All roads to an ACC championship continue to go through Blacksburg, which makes this the game of the year for the Yellow Jackets. The Hokies have become the league measuring stick, winning three league crowns over the last five years. Avenging a three-point loss last September could be the difference between winning the Coastal Division and another December bowl invitation.

2008 Fun Stats:
- Rushing yards per game: Georgia Tech 273.2 - Opponents 120.3
- Touchdown passes: Opponents 20 - Georgia Tech 5
- First quarter scoring: Georgia Tech 74 - Opponents 37 Top Stories