Saturday Road Crystal Ball: Predicting every Georgia Tech football game for 2022
Editor’s note: Saturday Road’s annual Crystal Ball preview series concludes today with Georgia Tech. You can find all 15 ACC previews (including Notre Dame) at SaturdayRoad.com.
You have to feel for Geoff Collins.
He knew what he was getting into when he decided to take on the challenge of transitioning Georgia Tech from Paul Johnson’s option attack to a more conventional 21st Century offense. He knew it would take time and an intense recruiting effort over several cycles.
But even he could never have imagined how difficult a task it would turn out to be.
Three seasons into the building effort, with the distraction of a COVID year sandwiched in the middle, he’s managed to produce only 9 wins. And the prospects for improvement this year aren’t particularly bright given the massive roster turnover the Yellow Jackets experienced during the offseason and the brutal schedule that awaits them this fall.
Three of Tech’s first 5 opponents are coming off 10-win seasons and it only gets tougher from there.
Whether Collins deserves more time to turn things around, given the circumstances, is a decision athletic director Todd Stansbury will likely have to make at some point this season. If it is a win-now-or-else situation, Collins would be well-advised to get his résumé updated.
If he does go down in flames, it won’t be for a lack of trying. Collins gave his roster a new look this summer by hitting the transfer portal hard and he completely restructuring his staff with the addition of Chip Long as offensive coordinator, former Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke as quarterbacks coach and David Turner as assistant head coach and defensive run game coordinator.
“I’m excited about the guys that we’ve been able to add to the organization, whether that be coaches (or) players,” Collins said. “The big focus since the end of last season is how we can play the best brand of Georgia Tech football on college football Saturdays. That’s been the focus of everything we’ve done, all the changes, all the deep introspection on how we do things and why we do things.”
How and why are important. But when it comes to college football, especially programs coming off 3 straight 3-win seasons, results are the only thing that really matters and it’s tough to imagine the results being there for the Yellow Jackets this season, no matter how improved they are.
About the only one who’s optimistic about their chances is Collins.
At least someone is.
No one was as active on the NCAA’s transfer portal as Collins this offseason in an attempt to bolster his lineup on both sides of the ball. In addition to a full class of incoming freshmen signees, Collins brought in 17 veteran free agents from other schools.
It’s a group that includes 2 players each from heavyweights Clemson (quarterback Taisun Phommachanh and offensive lineman Paul Tchio), 2 from Auburn (defensive backs Eric Reed Jr. and Ahmari Harvey) and Notre Dame (defensive backs KJ Wallace and Khari Gee), along with Alabama offensive lineman Pierce Quick.
The rest of the transfer class consists of running backs Hassan Hall from Louisville and Dylan McDuffie from Buffalo, quarterback Zach Gibson from Akron, tight ends EJ Jenkins from South Carolina and Luke Benson from Syracuse, offensive tackle Corey Robinson from Kansas, cornerback Kenny Bennett from Maryland, linebacker RJ Adams from Kentucky and defensive end Christian Burkhalter from UCLA.
Collins also completely revamped his staff with additions on both sides of the ball, among them 2000 Heisman Trophy winner Weinke to work with incumbent starter Jeff Sims and the two transfers in the quarterback room.
Who replaces Jahmyr Gibbs?
The transfer portal bringeth and the transfer portal taketh away.
Just as many players left the program after last season as arrived, including by far the most significant departure – running back Jahmyr Gibbs.
A former 4-star prospect who ran for 746 yards and 4 touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry and catching 36 passes out of the backfield in 2021 in his second year with the Yellow Jackets, Gibbs upgraded from one of the worst teams in the country to arguably the best by transferring to Alabama.
The question now becomes how does Tech replace his production and untapped potential, especially given the nature of the schedule the team will have to face. With second-leading rusher Jordan Mason having also left to try and earn a spot on the San Francisco 49ers roster as an undrafted free agent, the top incumbent is redshirt junior Dontae Smith.
Smith, who has been patiently waiting his turn to become a featured back, rushed for 378 yards and four touchdowns in a backup role with a similar per-carry average to Gibbs.
“Slowly throughout the years I started getting more playing time and showing myself what I can do on the field versus college players,” Smith said. “I redshirted, so for a long time, I didn’t get to see it as a running back. Every year my confidence builds. Steadily throughout the years, I’ve become bigger, faster and more explosive.”
Along with Smith, transfers Hall, who amassed 3,843 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns in four seasons at Louisville while earning second-team All-ACC honors in 2019, and McDuffie, who rushed for 1,049 and 11 scores at Buffalo last year, will also play prominent roles in the backfield rotation.
The hiring of Long and Weinke were made with an eye toward helping third-year sophomore Sims make the progression from raw talent to polished dual-threat weapon, But it also helped free Collins up to become more hands-on with a defense that’s been every bit as bad as the offense he was hired to restructure.
“Obviously, a lot of decisions that were made were made for me to be able to spend more time with the defense,” he said. “All the new, fresh ideas and people I can lean on as well have been very beneficial for the program.”
Collins made his name in coaching as a successful defensive coordinator at Mississippi State and Florida, among other places, along with a stint as head coach at Temple, so he’s as qualified as anyone to take a shot at bringing about a dramatic improvement.
The Yellow Jackets surrendered 33.5 points and 455.3 yards per game last season while recording only 20 sacks – the second-fewest in the ACC – and a league-worst 3 interceptions. They ranked last among FBS programs in pass defense efficiency and were outscored by a combined 100-0 margin by their final two opponents, Notre Dame and Georgia, last season.
To make matters worse, 8 of the team’s top 11 tacklers are no longer with the program, meaning that a lot of youngsters or newcomers from other schools will have to step in and make major contributions.
Linebackers Ayinde Eley (90 tackles in 2021) and Charlie Thomas (70 tackles, 10.0 TFLs) are the best holdovers while cornerback Zamari Walton will be one of the few familiar faces in a rebuilt secondary that will be manned almost exclusively by transfers Reed, Wallace, Gee, Harvey and Bennett.
Week 1: vs. Clemson at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (L)
No easing into the season for the Yellow Jackets. The Tigers are healthy and motivated to impress the rest of the nation, especially all the poll voters that will be watching the game on Labor Day night. Tech will be lucky to keep this one even relatively close.
Week 2: vs. Western Carolina (W)
Collins’ alma mater does him a solid by coming to Bobby Dodd Stadium for the one-and-only gimme on one of the nation’s most difficult schedules. Show no mercy on your beloved Catamounts, Geoff. You probably won’t get another chance.
Week 3: vs. Ole Miss (L)
Who scheduled this game? If they haven’t already been fired, maybe they will be after this one starts getting out of hand. The Rebels were a 10-win team last year whose only regular-season losses were to Alabama and Auburn. And don’t expect Lane Kiffin to show any mercy. On a side note, Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart will be the first of two USC transfers to light up the Tech secondary this season.
Week 4: at Central Florida (L)
And now a road game against a team that could very well be ranked by the time the Yellow Jackets come to town. This will be the final season in the American Athletic Conference for Gus Malzahn’s team and they’re determined to take advantage of it before moving up a notch to the Big 12 in 2023.
Week 5: at Pittsburgh (L)
USC transfer Kedon Slovis picks up where Dart left off by putting up big passing numbers and leading the defending ACC champions to a lopsided win.
Week 6: vs. Duke (W)
Finally, an opportunity for the Yellow Jackets to show that they’re better than their record indicates. The Blue Devils are a team in transition under new coach Mike Elko and have a long way to go to return to respectability. They ranked last in the ACC in 2021 in scoring offense and scoring defense, which should make for a rare fun day on The Flats.
Week 7: Open
Week 8: vs. Virginia (W)
Fresh off an open date and brimming with confidence from the win against Duke, the Yellow Jackets start a winning streak. While Sims put up career numbers in the previous game against the Blue Devils, this game is one for the running backs to fatten up their stats against a Cavaliers defense that gave up an average of 225.8 yards per game last season.
Week 9: at Florida State (L)
The momentum comes to a screeching halt in Tallahassee against a Seminoles team that is finally starting to figure things out under Mike Norvell.
Week 10: at Virginia Tech (L)
If this game had been played earlier in the season or perhaps if it was being played in Atlanta, Tech might have a shot at beating the Hokies and cooling off Collins’ seat just a bit. But it’s in Blacksburg at a time of year in which first-year coach Brent Pry’s team is starting to come together. Bad timing. Bad location. Bad result for the Yellow Jackets.
Week 11: vs Miami (L)
The Yellow Jackets are liable to keep this one close as the Hurricanes look past them toward a shot at the Coastal Division title in their first year under Mario Cristobal. But in the end, Miami just has too much talent for Tech to pull off the upset.
Week 12: at North Carolina (L)
Yet another case of bad timing. The Tar Heels got off to a slow start while the freshman quarterback Luke Maye got his feet under him and new coordinator Gene Chizik’s defense got used to his system. But UNC is running on all cylinders now and after getting shocked by Tech in Atlanta last season, they’re not going to get caught napping in this one.
Week 13: at Georgia (L)
The only positive to this annual season-ending slaughter is that it’s between the hedges in Athens so the few fans the Yellow Jackets have left won’t have to sit through it. The only real suspense is if Collins will still be around to have to sit through it.
2022 projection: 3-9 (2-6), T-4th in ACC Coastal
You can tell a lot about what a coach really thinks of his team’s chances in an upcoming season by the words he chooses leading up to the first game.
Terms such as “process” and “preparation” are never a good sign.
Take it away, Geoff Collins:
“The big thing is just teaching the guys the process, how we do things, how we go about our preparation, how we go about our work,” he said at the ACC’s preseason kickoff event in Charlotte last month. “One of the biggest things and the benefits of the leadership in the program is staying true to the process and improving the process even though results aren’t showing on the field. The commitment from the leadership in our program, the coaches, to continue to find ways to improve every single day has been the whole focus.”
To be fair, there’s a realistic possibility that the “process” Collins is pushing – along with a large influx of veteran talent off the transfer portal – could produce a dramatic improvement in the Yellow Jackets this season.
But against a schedule that starts with the preseason ACC favorite and ends with the defending national champion with plenty of other speed bumps in between, there’s just as much of a possibility that the improvement won’t produce better results on the scoreboard and in the standings.
It might not be a no-win situation. But it’s close.