Pundits knocked Paul Johnson's old-school running approach, saying that once teams became accustomed to the offense, it's effectiveness would slowly dissipate. They assumed that once talented skill players like Josh Nesbitt and Demaryius Thomas left Atlanta, it would be extremely difficult for the coaching staff to recruit equivalent talent to play in Johnson's unique offensive creation. But while there is still time for those early claims to be proven correct, it hasn't happened yet. If anything, Georgia Tech's 2011 offense may be the most balanced – and most explosive – since Johnson arrived prior to the 2008 season.
The Yellow Jackets are 3-0 for the first time since 2005 and currently lead the nation in scoring offense (59.3 ppg), total offense (675.3 ypg) and rushing offense (427.7 ypg). A-back Orwin Smith leads Georgia Tech with 270 rushing yards and four touchdowns on just 12 carries, while B-back David Sims (30 carries, 205 yards, 3 TD) and quarterback/tailback Synjyn Days (38 carries, 214 yards, 4 TD) also join starting quarterback Tevin Washington in the backfield.
In its 66-24 victory over Kansas last Saturday, Georgia Tech broke a NCAA record for rushing yards per attempt (12.1), broke an ACC record for net rushing yards (604) and broke a school record for total offense (768).
"I think we all know that's probably coming to an end." – Johnson on his team's three-game streak of scoring on its first offensive play
"If we don't play well, we'll get embarrassed. We don't have anything to be overly confident about, that's for sure." – Johnson
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Offense vs. GT's 3-4 Defense
It would be an understatement to say that North Carolina hasn't faired well against Al Groh's 3-4 defensive scheme. In the last eight matchups, UNC's offense has averaged 13 points, which helps to explain the Tar Heels' seven losses during that stretch.
After a nine-year stint as Virginia's head coach, Groh is now in his second season as Georgia Tech's defensive coordinator. The Yellow Jackets rank 49th nationally in both total defense (335.0 ypg) and scoring defense (22.0).
Groh's scheme utilizes three down linemen and four linebackers instead of the traditional four down linemen and three linebackers, which relies heavily on the middle line to hit gaps in run support or in blitzing opportunities.
"There's going to be four linebackers out there and they're very fast," UNC quarterback Bryn Renner said. "They like to come up to the line and they're very athletic. They can play our tight ends and just try to confuse us. So I've definitely got to get a handle on where they're going to be at all times."
UNC left tackle James Hurst told reporters on Monday that having already played a heavy blitzing team in Rutgers will help his offensive teammates in preparation for Georgia Tech.
"Seeing people move around gets you ready for movement in general," Hurst said. "Obviously it's a three-man front and not a four, but I think just seeing movement early in the season will help you when you have react to it in a game."
UNC offensive coordinator John Shoop found a rhythm early in last September's meeting between these two programs, churning out 285 yards and 24 points in UNC's first four possessions. But the Tar Heels only managed 67 yards on 27 plays the rest of the game, committing more turnovers (2) than scored points (0).
UNC head coach Everett Withers stressed the importance of his offense sustaining drives and scoring touchdowns to offset Georgia Tech's ground game that prefers to take the air out of the ball. That begins with continued success on the ground – UNC ranks 42nd nationally in rushing offense (179.3 ypg) – and a concerted effort to minimize turnovers.
GT's Tevin Washington vs. UNC's Secondary
The Yellow Jackets' rushing attack requires a heavy focus during game week for all parties involved – coaches, players and even media members. Johnson is counting on that approach and has utilized first-year starting quarterback Tevin Washington (17-of-28 passing, 637 yards, 7 TD) to exploit that tendency this season through the air.
The red-shirt junior leads the ACC in passing efficiency (334.3) and would lead the nation if he had enough attempts to qualify. Washington has thrown at least two touchdowns in each game and has spread those scores around four receivers, led by Stephen Hill (8 catches, 311 yards, 3 TD).
Georgia Tech has four pass plays of 70-plus yards this season, which is more than any other conference has produced.
"I think Tevin has done a really good job of becoming more adept in the offense throwing it," Withers said. "They seem to be successful throwing it. I believe they're getting to where they want to be with this offense with the ability to throw it downfield."
North Carolina's secondary has been solid if unspectacular through three games, but will likely encounter a number of 1-on-1 situations as the front seven will be focused containing Georgia Tech's rushing attack.
Oddly enough, the more action the UNC's secondary sees on Saturday, the better.
During the Johnson era, Georgia Tech has attempted eight or fewer passes in a game 11 times and has won all 11 games. The Yellow Jackets attempted four passes against UNC last season, completing three for 76 yards.