Take a moment to savor the sideline dynamics between Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, even five months in advance.
Almost 10 years ago Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder accepted what will probably be the last head coaching post of his career at Georgia Southern. It was a job Paul Johnson had helped build into something special by winning two national titles, five conference championships and 62 games before leaving for Navy in 2002.
Georgia Southern stuck with Johnson’s triple option for a few more years before turning the program over to VanGorder, who quickly dismantled it. The resulting 3-8 record ranked among the worst in school history and came just as Johnson had turned around Navy with that deception-based offense.
According to USA Today, quoting a colleague of Johnson’s at Georgia Southern, Johnson wanted Navy to put Georgia Southern on the schedule “because I want to beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder.” Almost a decade later, one of the preeminent coaches in option football will get that shot.
It’s enough to spike interest in Georgia Tech’s trip to South Bend on Sept. 19. And this game was already a matchup of two Top 20 teams with potential to make the College Football Playoff. Georgia Tech is coming off its own bowl win over an SEC opponent (Mississippi State) after pushing Florida State to the wire (ACC title game).
“Georgia Tech has been in contention for the ACC title game the past few years, but this should be one of the better teams here,” said Jonathan Leifheit, who covers Georgia Tech for Scout.com. “I don’t see any reason to discount them at this point.”
Irish Illustrated’s off-season rundown of Notre Dame’s slate continues with Georgia Tech, a potential tripwire in a College Football Playoff.
Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas could be an Alabama defensive back today if Nick Saban got his way. As a four-star recruit from Prattville, Ala., Thomas originally committed to the Tide. But a desire to play quarterback – something Alabama wouldn’t offer – helped flip Thomas to Georgia Tech, where he led the nation’s No. 1 rushing offense last fall.
Now a fourth-year quarterback in Johnson’s system, Thomas went wire-to-wire last fall. A team captain, Thomas rushed a team-high 190 times for 1,086 yards and eight touchdowns. Where he separated himself from other option quarterbacks showed in the pass game. He completed only 51.3 percent of his passes but hit for 18 touchdowns against just six picks.
With Thomas at the controls behind Johnson’s best offensive line, Georgia Tech led the nation in rushing (4,789 yards) and third down conversions (57.9 percent). The Yellow Jackets finished sixth in yards per carry at 6.06. They were what should worry Notre Dame most – Navy with more talent. That starts with Thomas.
“Two things jump out about last year, an offensive line that drove everybody off the ball and Justin Thomas,” Leifheit said. “Thomas is by far the best decision-maker and best quarterback for this offense since Johnson has been here.
“When those two factors came together after the first few weeks, it looked like there was no stopping them. It was an incredible year.”
Not only does Thomas return, but four starters on the line do too. The fullbacks – Tech calls them “B-backs” – must be replaced. Same goes for the wing backs, aka “A-backs.” Fifth-year Stanford transfer Patrick Skov could be a solution at fullback. He caught a 16-yard pass in Notre Dame Stadium last season for the Cardinal.
Georgia Tech returns eight starters on defense, a group that struggled early last season but improved late. The line also activated Jabari Hunt-Days this spring, a fifth-year defensive tackle who sat out last season due to academics. The two seasons prior, Hunt-Days started 21 games and posted 11.5 tackles for loss.
In back-to-back wins against Clemson and Georgia in November, the Yellow Jackets defense allowed two total touchdowns.
“They gave up some yards in the second half of the year, but they were extremely good in getting the ball back and making big plays when they had to make them,” Leifheit said. “The question is if that carries over. The defensive line really has flipped from last year.”
Georgia Tech’s defensive improvements began at mid-season, coincidentally after facing the same opponent that exposed Notre Dame’s weaknesses. North Carolina put up 48 points on Georgia Tech, which offered no sign of defensive coordinator Ted Roof being ready to get it right. But the Yellow Jackets won five straight from there to take the ACC Coastal, allowing 18.2 points per game over that stretch.
The Yellow Jackets forced 17 turnovers during that win streak and held opponents to 24-of-60 on third down. If Georgia Tech managed that turnover production over the whole season it would have led the nation in takeaways.
“After that North Carolina game something changed, the staff said they were going to roll the dice with certain guys and it worked,” Leifheit said.
Notre Dame opens the season against Texas followed by a trip to Virginia. Compare that to Georgia Tech’s warm-up for South Bend with home games against Alcorn State and Tulane.
There’s an argument that those glorified scrimmages could leave Georgia Tech’s precision offense without a good look against a true speed defense. But the more likely reality is Notre Dame won’t have much in-season time to prepare for the option, which could force VanGorder to incorporate option work into training camp.
“It can be an advantage for Tech if they can get some confidence for the new guys,” Leifheit said. “With that offense, it’s just about repetition. They should get a lot of that in those first two games with minimal challenge. To me, that’s the biggest advantage for Tech.”