One dismissed quarterback, five losses and a defensive coordinator later, the Tigers traveled to Atlanta hoping to salvage any positives that remain from a season that seemed to take a wrong turn nearly every weekend.
Tiger Nation has seen plenty of high times under the reigns of head coach Les Miles, but the 2008 season brought none of that. And on the eve of the year's final day, the Tigers will set out to put everything that was negative about the past four months away for good.
The opponent is formidable, a Georgia Tech team that has righted the ship under the direction of first year head coach Paul Johnson. Relying on the triple option offense as its offensive centerpiece, the 9-3 Yellow Jackets have taken a much different path to their bowl game than the Tigers.
At the same time, all roads lead to Atlanta and the New Year's Eve Chick-Fil-A Bowl, where the No. 14 ranked Yellow Jackets take on the LSU Tigers.
A Look at the Offense
Anyone who thought that Johnson and his triple option offense would not flourish in the Atlantic Coast Conference got proven wrong, and in a big way.
Behind the legs of Josh Nesbitt, Jon Dwyer and Roddy Jones, Johnson took the Yellow Jackets to the top of the ACC in yards per game (337.3) and rushing offense (282.3). The feat helped earn the first-year signal caller ACC coach of the year honors.
Dwyer leads Johnson’s attack with 1,328 yards and 12 touchdowns with an average of seven yards a carry. Jones and Nesbitt have added 658 and 631 yards, respectively, and combined for 11 touchdowns. Even the fourth and fifth leading rushers, Lucas Cox (25-205-3) and Jaybo Shaw (63-200-3), have combined to rush for more than LSU's second leading rusher, Keiland Williams (375 yards).
If the Tigers hope to stick in it with the Yellow Jackets, all 11 men better hope to stay tuned into their blocking assignments from the start of the game until the final whistle. Georgia can speak to that claim after seeing Georgia Tech in the final week of the regular season, a game that saw the Yellow Jackets run the Bulldog defense into the ground to the tune of 401 yards and 45 points.
The Tigers gave up 250 points, 31 points a game, in their final eight games of the season, which does not bode well for the Bayou Bengal's hopes of pulling the plug on Johnson's explosive offense come New Year's Eve.
If the Tigers are able to stuff the run, however, Nesbitt will be forced to use his wide outs, which means Demaryius Thomas should get plenty of looks.
Nesbit is 46-of-99 on the season passing for 658 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. Thomas is the only receiver with double digit receptions on the year, pulling in 36 passes for 595 yards and three touchdowns.
Johnson hopes to keep his troops on the ground, where he has given 16 different players carries this season. Seven different players have scored rushing touchdowns for the Rambling Wreck, so it is evident that Johnson is not scared to put the ball into the hands of anyone on the offensive side of the ball.
Nesbitt should remain quiet with his arm, as he has only gone into double digit passing five times on the season, his highest total coming during the Nov. 8 loss to North Carolina, where he completed 10-of-22 for 97 yards and an interception.
A look at the Defense
The Tiger offense has been anemic for much of the season, playing quarterback shuffle from weekend to weekend. Now, the Tigers are set with redshirt freshman Jordan Jefferson. With the threat of the run now there, Johnson and his Yellow Jacket defense look to make a statement much like the one that their offense has made throughout the season.
Heading into the game, Georgia Tech's defensive unit ranks sixth in the ACC, allowing an average of 312.7 yards to opposing offenses per game.
With a majority of the Tigers’ success this season coming by way of Charles Scott and Williams, the Yellow Jackets should expect a heavy dose of the backfield tandem, as well as the threat of Trindon Holliday and Richard Murphy on the Georgia Dome’s artificial surface.
Fortunately for Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets rush defense ranks fourth in the conference, allowing an average of 116.9 yards per game.
Though the Rambling Wreck's pass defense ranks eighth in the league, giving up an average of 195.8 yards per game, the Tigers have yet to show any serious and consistent threat to opponents through the air with Jefferson at the helm.
The most glaring part of the Tigers’ downfall on offense might be Jarrett Lee's interception saga, which has seen him toss 16 on the season, more than a few of which were returned for touchdowns.
Sophomore Morgan Burnett is anxious to get his hands on the receiving end of either Lee or Jefferson's passes, as he hauled in seven of the Yellow Jacket's 18 interceptions on the season.
Burnett will also get to know the LSU backfield during the showdown, as the sophomore recorded a team high 79 tackles on the season.
LSU head coach Les Miles' decision to give the starting nod to Jefferson, the more mobile of the two Tiger quarterbacks, looks to be the right call.
Johnson's defensive unit has recorded 32 sacks on the season, which is good for second best in the ACC. Senior Michael Johnson should be able to get his fair share of licks onto the Tiger quarterback, as he and sophomore Derrick Morgan led the team with seven sacks a piece.
The struggling Tiger offense should look to find its identity early in this game, for the Yellow Jacket defense has proved formidable all season. If they can manufacture points on Johnson's defense, his offense will be forced to open up the aerial attack.
A look at Special Teams
The Georgia Tech special teams units have been a bit of a mystery to the Yellow Jacket-faithful all season.
The kickoff return team fielded the ball 41 times for 796 yards, good for the lowest in the ACC.
The punt return unit also did not find the end zone, taking back 25 kicks for 171 yards, good for 8th best in the ACC.
The Yellow Jackets punting crew is averaging 34 yards a punt, good for 9th best in the conference.
Scott Blair finished with one of the worst seasons on paper for an ACC kicker, hitting on just 11-of-19 attempts, also not converting on any attempt over 40 yards.
The Yellow Jackets are one of the hottest teams in the 2008 college football season, and the Tigers have arguably been one of the coldest.
Will the Tigers be up for a bowl game in December when less than a year ago they were holding up a crystal ball in New Orleans?
Both the defensive and offensive units have been embarrassed by the opposition at times this season, and Tiger fans would seem hard pressed to believe that Miles and his team would come out flat once again, especially in a game that offers a small shot at redemption.
The Tigers will need to establish the running game early, not forcing the ball onto the arm and decisions of Jefferson or Lee too early, if at all. Scott and Williams have shown signs of life throughout the season; so long as the blocking is there the tandem should have a bright evening.
The Tiger defense has had a few weeks to sit on a game plan for the Yellow Jackets. Will the turmoil surrounding the co-defensive coordinators leave the Tigers high and dry come New Year's Eve, or will the hard-hitting bunch that helped lead the Bayou Bengals to the title last season show their face once more?
If LSU can put a stopper on the output of Dwyer and Nesbitt's production on the ground, the Yellow Jackets will be forced to put the ball into the air. With Nesbitt entering the game with under 100 passing attempts on the season, Patrick Peterson and Co. are licking their chops to get the ball into the quarterback's arm.
The showdown should serve as one of Miles biggest statement games not just this season, but of his career. The only question that remains is which one of his teams will show up Wednesday night?
LSU 35, Georgia Tech 24