The big question: can Tech recapture their late-season swagger? If they can play with confidence there is no reason the Jackets can’t run the table. I’m just not sure they can.
Paul Johnson starts the season with a new stable of running backs. Usually whoever he trots out there can produce in his offense. Hopefully that will be the case this year.
Junior signal-caller Justin Thomas was named pre-season ACC player of the year and placed on several Heisman watch lists. Should he have two more seasons like last year he will easily supplant Joe Hamilton as the greatest QB in school history. Not only does he run the option better than any other QB during the Johnson regime, he is also an accurate enough passer to surprise the defense with a completion. Chuck Oliver says that for all twelve of Tech’s opponents, the most talented and dangerous QB they’ll face all season is Thomas. That gives Tech a leg up in every game – if they can use the advantage.
In addition to his play, Justin Thomas the leader sets the tone for the entire team. His teammates don’t want to let him down. In the past Tech has been guilty of playing down to a lesser opponent’s level, especially to a Duke or Pitt. With Thomas in control that’s less likely to happen. In the past two seasons Thomas has not missed time to injury. I have my fingers crossed that his streak will continue. As tough as he is, he takes a beating and often looks hobbled at the end of games. Should Thomas miss time to injury Tim Byerly is an able backup – a tough runner who runs the option well, with a decent passing touch to boot. An able replacement, just lacking the magic touch of Thomas.
While many prognosticators stick with popular picks like FSU and Clemson, experts like Kirk Herbstreit know Tech is a force to be reckoned with. There are few easy wins on the schedule, so Tech must bring their A game every week to be successful. Just showing up won’t be enough.
September 3 vs Alcorn State: when on TV Tech usually disappoints. Luckily more people will be watching NC/SC. Looking forward to a big game from backup QB Byerly. Tech will be held to less than 50 points. 1 – 0.
September 12 vs Tulane: last year Tech struggled to beat Tulane in New Orleans. At Grant Field a victory won’t be a cakewalk, but I expect to see more of young Mr. Byerly. 2 – 0.
September 19 at Notre Dame: are the Irish over-rated? Probably. Tech has the team to beat Notre Dame, but actually doing it in South Bend is another matter. The Irish won’t beat Tech. The Jackets beat themselves. 2 – 1.
September 26 at Duke: losing to Notre Dame will make Tech hungry for a win in Durham. Good thing. Usually Tech struggles on the road at Duke, the only place in the ACC with less energy than Grant Field. Not a blowout, but a win nonetheless. 3 – 1.
October 3 vs North Carolina: the Tar Heels are easier to beat when you have them on the road, but they’re no slouch. The Jackets avenge last year’s high-scoring lost where the defense completely fell apart. 4 – 1.
October 10 at Clemson: to beat the Tigers in Death Valley the Jackets must strike quick and control the game. The loser will be the team making mistakes, turning the ball over, and not getting the ball in the end zone. Tech will miss a field goal or two, and that will be the difference. 4 – 2.
October 17 vs Pittsburgh: the Panthers always play the Jackets tough. Another close game, but Tech wins the day. 5 – 2.
October 24 vs FSU: motivated, Thomas rises to the occasion and beats the Noles in an exciting game. 6 – 2.
October 31 at Virginia: another place the Jackets struggle. Thomas slumps but Byerly picks up the team. Tech wins on a late field goal. 7 – 2.
November 12 vs Virginia Tech (Thursday night): the Jackets usually struggle in these Thursday night ESPN games, but not so much this time. A close game, but Tech wins. The nation is beginning to appreciate Justin Thomas. 8 – 2.
November 21 at Miami: another tough game, but Tech once more finds a way to win a close one. 9 - 2
November 28 vs Georgia: with a five game winning streak Tech is riding high. When the Jackets edged the Dawgs in last year’s thriller a succession of 4 or 5 unlikely plays went Tech’s way – goal line fumble, short kickoff, long field goal, overtime interception. This year the ball won’t bounce Tech’s way every time. As so often happens in this classic series, the road team finds a way to win. Jackets lose. 9 – 3.
December 5 vs Clemson (ACC Championship Game in Charlotte): in the rematch a determined Tech team doesn’t quit, and upsets the undefeated Tigers – much to the chagrin of the entire ACC community, who like Clemson were looking forward to placing a team in the playoff. Unfortunately Heisman votes were cast before the game, and Justin Thomas remains on the outside looking in. 10 – 3.
Bowl Game: like last year, the big bad SEC can’t solve Paul Johnson’s option, and Tech wins their second straight Orange Bowl. Tech finishes in the top ten for the second straight year. 11 – 3.
Worst case: Thomas misses considerable time to injury. Tech loses to Notre Dame, Clemson, FSU, Georgia, and once or twice more…missing the ACC Championship Game. Distraught, the Jackets also lose their third-tier bowl game. Certainly a possibility – it’s happened before. But that was before the Justin Thomas era.