Almost every Georgia Tech football season comes down to one game. As many fans know, either Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech has won the Coastal Division all but one year since the division's inception. To add to the intrigue is the on the field coaching duel that occurs between Paul Johnson and Virginia Tech Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster each year. Each coach is a master of their respective schemes, and Foster's defense has given Johnson fits for years. It's always a treat to see who wins each year's chess match. This year, the contest could come right down to the wire.
OT Laurence Gibson
Virginia Tech's offensive line was mediocre last season, which was a big reason why the offense was so anemic. Repeatedly throughout the season, Michael Brewer showed an inability to handle pressure, and he faced plenty of it. In Gibson, Virginia Tech lost its left tackle and one of its better Offensive Linemen. In addition, the Hokies lost starting OG/OC David Wang and occasionally starting OC Caleb Farris. It will be tough to replace all that talent, and that may mean that Brewer will be facing a lot of pressure yet again this season. If Brewer is the same QB that he was a year ago, it could be another long season for the Hokie offense.
LB Chase Williams
Williams may be the biggest loss of the season for the Hokies. In 2014, Bud Foster opted to use his regular MLB against Georgia Tech instead of switching him with a faster corner or safety. The choice paid off. Williams was all over the field in this match up, recording 17 tackles. Foster had Williams line up further back from the line of scrimmage so that he could flow sideline to sideline without getting blocked by the center. He excelled at both stuffing the dive and pursuing the option to the sideline. He made very few bad reads and false steps, and played about as good a game as one can play against Paul Johnson's offense. With his departure, is unknown how Foster will adjust his defense to face the spread option. No matter what adjustments he makes, it will be difficult to replace a player as instinctive as Williams against the Georgia Tech offense.
S Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner
Virginia Tech loses both its starting safeties this year, and that loss combined with the loss of Williams could spell trouble when trying to defend the option. The safeties are primarily responsible for filling the lane against the QB and the pitch, and the MLB flows to the sideline if the QB does not give the ball to the BB. Losing all that experience guarding the edge could have serious consequences this season. Expect the Georgia Tech ABs to have a big day both blocking and running the ball, as the pitch should be open all day.
QB Michael Brewer
After an up and down season, the Virginia Tech starting QB returns for his final season. At the beginning of last season, the Virginia Tech offense lacked identity after the departure of QB Logan Thomas. Brewer transferred in to give the offense a new identity, and after an impressive win against eventual national champion Ohio State, it looked like he would do just that. But that's where the proverbial wheels fell off the proverbial wagon. In subsequent losses to East Carolina and Georgia Tech, Brewer never seemed to be able to nail down the same consistency he showed in the Ohio State game. The Hokie offense slipped into mediocrity once more, and the team was barely bowl eligible at the end of the season. Against the Jackets, it was Brewer's questionable decision making that lost the game. Take away the inexplicable screen pass pick 6 and the late 4th quarter INT to DJ White, and the game has a completely different result. Lose the Virginia Tech game, and it would be reasonable to believe that Georgia Tech's entire 2014 season would have taken a different direction.
CB Kendall Fuller
The likely future 1st round pick returns for what will almost certainly be his last season this year, and will be a major problem if Georgia Tech needs to pass extensively in this game. Unlike his brother Kyle(now with the Chicago Bears), Kendall is more of a pure corner and won't be used as the Mike Linebacker against Georgia Tech. As part of his scheme against Paul Johnson's offense, Bud Foster would use a larger CB as the Middle LB in order to facilitate better sideline to sideline pursuit. He stopped this practice last year, and it appears that he may not go back to it until he finds another Kyle Fuller or Kam Chancellor. However, this does not mean that Kendall Fuller will not have a big effect on the game. If he shuts down the passing game by eliminating Georgia Tech's biggest receiving threat, it will allow the safeties to crowd the box, making it difficult to establish the option. Fuller was able to shut down Deandre Smelter for much of the game last year, and I personally can't understand why Foster didn't have him covering Smelter at the end of the game when everything was on the line. It's unlikely that Foster will make the same mistake again, and Smelter has moved on to the next level. Fuller against the Jackets' receivers will be a must-watch match up.
DT Luther Maddy
Oh look who's back.....again. The Jackets will face Maddy for the 5th straight year after the Senior was granted a medical hardship waiver following the 2014 matchup between the Jackets and Hokies. Maddy has been a disruptive presence over the years, the kind of defensive player that will give an option QB fits. Shaq Mason was able to control him to an extent in 2014, but with Mason gone it will be a tall order for his replacement to beat a now-healthy Maddy. He'll be a major player to watch. If he can control the inside or disrupt Justin Thomas's reads, it will be tough going for the offense.
WR Isaiah Ford
Of all the Virginia Tech players returning, perhaps none had a bigger day against Georgia Tech last year than Ford. The Freshman caught 8 passes for 114 yards against a frustratingly soft secondary. Following poor defensive performances against lower-tier teams, Ted Roof played his corners off the line and it showed. Ford was easily able to find the soft points in the zone, and allowed Brewer an outlet which he could throw to under pressure. Given the results from last year and Brewer's propensity to make mistakes under pressure, expect Roof to dial up more pressure and play tighter coverage. This does not mean, however, that Ford will be neutralized. With the more aggressive Georgia Tech defense, there will be more one on one opportunities for Ford. This will be dangerous, and the secondary will need to be up to the task. They should be able to handle it, but it is a risk.
DE Dadi Nicolas
The 2014 Second team All-ACC DE will be returning for his final season this year, and will be yet another defensive weapon the Jackets will face in this game. The Athletic Nicolas excels as a pass rusher, and will be a problem if Georgia Tech finds itself in any type of passing situation. As an athletic defender, Nicolas also has a lot to offer in run defense, and is the type of quick and disruptive player that option offenses hate face. These types of players can crash in quickly on the dive, defeat edge cut blocks, and track down the play from the back side. To put that into perspective, a player like Nicolas can not only make it difficult to make the right read on the option, but can also regularly disrupt even good option reads in the backfield. The key to stopping Nicolas will be good blocking on the edge, but that is easier said than done. Be sure to watch to see how well the Offensive Line plays against him.
DT Tim Settle
The highly rated 4* DT could be the next in a long line of impressive DTs to come from Virginia Tech. Settle is massive, listed at almost 360 lbs, and will be a major run-stuffer for the Hokies. A player of this size will make it difficult to establish the Dive, which is essential to any option offense. With Virginia Tech's considerable depth on the Defensive Line, Settle may not play much this season, but look for him the future, as he will surely be a hassle for years to come.
OL Austin Clark
The Virginia Tech offensive line's struggles could be alleviated by the arrival of Clark, a 4-star Offensive Lineman who projects well at Tackle. He has the natural length and build for the position, and will be a welcome sight for Hokie quarterbacks who have lived under pressure for the last couple of seasons. He isn't currently listed as a starter, but don't be surprised of Clark moves up the depth chart given his talents.
Previewing the Game
The Hokies will return a large portion of the defense which stifled the Georgia Tech offense a year ago, and experience will only make them better. With the Jackets improving their defense as well, expect a low scoring game with few big plays on offense for either team. The biggest question mark on either side will be the VT offense. Will Brewer fix the mistakes that plagued him a year ago? Will the OL be able to keep pressure out of his face? Will the offense gain any sort of identity under Coordinator Scott Loeffler? The answers to these questions may very well decide the outcome of the game. We all know the VT defense will be good, and we know the Jackets will have a good offense as well. We know that Paul Johnson will have an intriguing chess match with Bud Foster. It's a fantastic match up, and one that could come down to the wire.
It is worth noting that VT has a bye week before this Thursday night game, but so do the Jackets. Both teams will have extra time to rest and scheme, making the strength-on-strength contest even more interesting. Pundits will say that the bye week gives the advantage to the Hokies, but it's a wash. Giving Paul Johnson extra time to prepare is just as big an advantage, if not a bigger one.
This game will be close, but a mistake by Brewer will be the difference, just as it was last year. The VT offense won't be able to take a step forward with him at the helm, and the Hokies will be in for another frustrating season in which the defense is great but the offense can't score.
Georgia Tech 24 - Virginia Tech 17