Schedule Preview: Georgia Tech

The North Carolina Tar Heels travel to Atlanta on Sept. 26 to battle Georgia Tech in a pivotal Coastal Division contest. The Yellow Jackets return 17 starters from a squad that posted a 9-4 record in 2008, including an appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve.

Overview: Few people expected Georgia Tech to hit the ground running during Paul Johnson's first season in Atlanta. After all, his ground-based scheme features the triple-option, which represented a culture shock-level change from former head coach Chan Gailey's pro-style approach. But the Yellow Jackets posted a 9-4 (5-3) record en route to an appearance in the New Year's Eve Chick-fil-A Bowl. Johnson's offense flourished against BCS competition under quarterback Josh Nesbitt's direction (692 rushing yards, 7 TD, 54-of-123 passing for 808 yards), finishing '08 ranked third nationally in rushing offense (282.3 ypg, 1st in ACC). With such an emphasis on running the ball, it's difficult to decipher if the passing game is close to where Johnson would like it be (95.0 ypg, 116th nationally), but the fact that Georgia Tech ranked fourth in the ACC in scoring offense (26.2 ppg, 56th nationally) may be telling.

The Yellow Jackets return an ACC-high 17 starters in 2009, including the conference‘s player of the year in junior B-back Jonathan Dwyer (1,395 yards, 12 TD, 7.0 yards per carry). Sophomore Roddy Jones held his own in the A-back position (690 yards, 4 TD, 8.5 ypc), but is recovering from a dislocated right wrist suffered in late June. Junior wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (39 receptions, 627 yards, 3 TD) figures to be more of threat in the vertical game. Losing first-team All-ACC left tackle Andrew Gardner hurts, but sophomore Nick Claytor finished the season at LT after Gardner went down with an injury late, giving the Yellow Jackets four returners on the offensive line.

The defense welcomes back eight starters from an oppressive squad that ranked in the top-25 nationally in five different categories – total defense (312.3 ypg), rushing defense (116.9), scoring defense (18.8), sacks (2.7) and tackles for loss (7.5). Junior safety Morgan Burnett (93 tackles, 7 INT) earned second-team All-ACC honors in '08 and will anchor the secondary. Where problems may arise for Georgia Tech is on the defensive line. Junior defensive end Derrick Morgan picked up All-ACC honorable mention accolades after totaling 51 tackles and seven sacks last fall, but replacing an All-American defensive end in Michael Johnson (46 tkl, 9 sacks, 8.5 tfl) and two All-ACC performers in defensive tackles Vance Walker and Darryl Richard will be extremely difficult.

Youth Movement: Despite returning 17 starters, the Yellow Jackets only have six scholarship seniors on the '09 roster. Center Dan Voss, offensive guard Cord Howard and strongside linebacker Sedric Griffin are the only seniors listed as starters on the post-spring depth chart.

Interesting Fact, Part I: Three teams – North Carolina, Georgia and LSU – enjoyed two weeks or more of preparation time before playing Georgia Tech last season. The Tar Heels and Tigers took advantage of the opportunity to closely scrutinize Johnson's unique ground attack, throttling the Yellow Jackets by a combined 66-10. The Bulldogs were not as productive, building a 28-12 halftime lead before collapsing down the stretch in a 45-42 loss.

Interesting Fact, Part II: Georgia Tech fans are hopeful for improvement this season, if for no other reason than Johnson's historical evidence. In his second season at Georgia Southern, the Eagles improved from 10-3 to 14-1. A more drastic statistical jump occurred at Navy, when the Midshipmen followed a 2-10 campaign with an 8-5 mark.

Quote Machine: Paul Johnson has never been afraid to speak his mind, which tends to invigorate fans and infuriate opponents. Following last season's dramatic season-ending victory over archrival Georgia, Johnson passed on breaking off a piece of the Sanford Stadium hedge, saying, "I figured I'd be back. Act like you think you're going to win."

Key Game: @ Miami on Sept. 17. The Yellow Jackets join Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech as programs expected to contend for the Coastal Division crown in 2009, and with home games against the latter two teams, the Thursday night showdown in Miami Gardens could go along way in putting Georgia Tech in driver's seat.

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5    Jacksonville St. 
Sept. 10   Clemson
Sept. 17   @ Miami (Fla.)
Sept. 26   North Carolina
Oct. 3     @ Mississippi St.
Oct. 10    @ Florida St.
Oct. 17    Virginia Tech
Oct. 24    @ Virginia
Oct. 31    @ Vanderbilt
Nov. 7     Wake Forest
Nov. 14    @ Duke 
Nov. 28    Georgia  

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