The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets' season ended the same way it has the past six years: with a loss in a bowl game.
This year’s Sun Bowl loss to Utah was especially gut wrenching because they had a 14-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. The Jackets also had a chance to win in the final seconds but missed on a 48-yard field goal. They ended up losing the game in overtime and were left to ponder on a season of what ifs.
Coach Paul Johnson was obviously disappointed in the manner in which the season ended and refused to blame it on injuries to running backs and defensive backs. Overall, this Georgia Tech team exceeded expectations on a whole. But once you start a season 6-0 and are ranked as high as No. 12 in the polls, then you create an overinflated wave of optimism.
The Jackets were picked to finish fourth in the Coastal Division of the 2011 ACC preseason poll. Not only did they finish tied for second in the Coastal Division, but they defeated eventual ACC champion Clemson handedly at home and were a couple of plays away from upsetting Virginia Tech and playing in the ACC title game themselves.
The triple option offense was effective at times, but again, when teams had more than one week to prepare, they were able to make the defensive adjustments and slow down the vaunted Tech running game. In spite of that, the Jackets still finished the season ranked No. 5 nationally in rushing.
The passing game showed signs of progress as junior QB Tevin Washington was often effective through the air and able to exploit defenses that loaded the box on every play. WR Stephen Hill was the beneficiary of most of the passes, and just like previous wideouts in Johnson’s system, he was among the nation’s leaders in yards per catch, averaging almost 30 yards per reception.
Georgia Tech ranked first nationally in third down conversion percentage, which speaks volumes of their ability to sustain drives and keep opposing offenses off the field.
Two areas which still need to be addressed in the offseason are defense and special teams. Defensive coordinator Al Groh finished his second year with almost identical defensive stats as 2010. According to Groh: “Implementation of a new defense is a three-year system.” So we should start seeing results beginning in the 2012 season. They need to develop more defensive players like Morgan Burnett, Michal Johnson and Derrick Morgan.
Special teams play alone cost the Jackets two crucial victories, including the bowl game against Utah. Missed field goals, huge chunks of return yardage and poor execution of punts and kickoffs cost the team many points. The Miami game outcome could have been very different if not for two muffed punts and a long kickoff return.
Georgia Tech needs to hire a special teams coordinator, because special teams play in close games can swing a season by one or two games. The Jackets could have ended the season 10-3 and made a case for a top-15 ranking.
Georgia Tech seems stuck in a rut of mediocrity, and next season will be more challenging with road games at Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia. Johnson will be entering his fifth season at the helm and some changes will need to be made, especially in the passing game. Johnson needs to exploit those deep pass plays more often and keep defenses honest.
Georgia Tech will have several key players returning on offense, including QB Washington, WR Hill, RB Sims, RB Smith and freshmen Synjyn Days. Tech also has a solid recruiting class coming in with 4-star ATH Justin Thomas, who de-committed from Alabama to come to the Flats. He is ranked No. 19 nationally at his position. Georgia Tech also has 4-star recruit DE Francis Kallon coming in, who is nationally ranked No. 21.
They have 14 commitments so far for 2012 and hope to have 17 to 19 players by National Signing Day. One of the top targets is Ramsey, N.J. DB Elijah Shumate, who is ranked the No. 7 safety by Rivals.com. If all of the recruits fall into place and with the returning players, the Ramblin Wreck fan base has plenty to smile about as they approach the 2012 season and look to climb back up to national prominence with an ACC title and BCS bid.