Countdown to Kickoff: 93 Days
In football, whether it be college or professional, there is a profusion of different ways to attain success on offense. A team can be built to succeed by running the ball, by passing the ball, or by simply controlling the ball by any means possible. On defense, however, the story changes completely; a strong defensive line with the ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks becomes an absolute necessity. In fact, very few teams as a whole can manage to succeed without the assistance of a high-quality rotation of passrushers. It's exactly what Georgia Tech has been missing for the entirety of Paul Johnson's tenure, and its presence or absence in 2016 will be either the life or death of the Jackets.
What's the problem?
After the 2015 football season, teams which finished in the top 10% of FBS schools in terms of sacks per game boasted an average of 9.4 wins. The bottom 10% -- including Georgia Tech, which ranked 120th nationally with 14 sacks on the year -- averaged just 3.8 wins. It's also worth noting that over the last five seasons, Tech has gone 12-5 when recording three or more sacks in a game and 13-20 when recording one or fewer. Was each of those victories and defeats sustained solely because of failure to pressure the opposing quarterback? Of course not, but it seems to have at least played a role.
Let's take a quick look at how the wins of each FBS team compared to that team's average in sacks per game to see if the argument that sacks bring wins can hold any water. Here's a scatter plot featuring all 127 FBS teams, painstakingly made for your viewing pleasure:
It's not as definitive as I'd like, but there's still a pretty clear positive correlation between a team's wins and sacks per game. Georgia Tech is shown in gold on that graph, with Penn State shown in green just to show how atrocious their offense was last season. Big shout-out to San Diego State (red), the only data point to land directly on my line of best fit. You're the real MVP, Aztecs.
So essentially, this issue is that Tech is getting virtually no sacks and the team's record has suffered because of it. When you can't get that type of consistent pressure, you're automatically putting too much on the shoulders of your secondary. The best group of corners and safeties in the world just couldn't hold it together for as long as Tech has been taking to pressure quarterbacks in recent years. For a great example of this, look no further than the Seattle Seahawks' Legion of Boom, a secondary featuring some of the best players in the world. When you subtract a high-level pass rush, it all goes downhill in a hurry no matter how good your personnel is. It's exactly what we saw all of last year when Tech's veteran secondary gave up frustratingly long third-down conversions over and over. It's all about that pressure upfront.
What's the solution?
The only thing to do is hope that guys can step up and find their rhythm within the defense. In my opinion, this year's defensive line is going to be capable enough to produce at least 10-15 more sacks than last year's unit did through a combination of player development and new arrivals. I'm even more confident in that assessment when you consider the relative ease of this year's schedule compared to last year's. Take out a pair of absurdly talented offensive lines in Notre Dame and Florida State, only to replace them with Boston College and Vanderbilt? Sounds great. The departure of UNC quarterback Marquise Williams in another welcome sight. That guy was untouchable against Tech.
As for players who need to step up in a big way this year, the team needs to look towards junior defensive end KeShun Freeman for guidance. A Freshman All-American just two years ago, Freeman's production dropped off significantly in 2015 to the tune of 2 sacks and 4 tackles for losses. Following the departure of Adam Gotsis, he is Tech's new go-to man on the defensive line. As he goes, so will go the rest of the pass rushing unit. Perhaps he could even get a boost from a fresher face, such as sophomore Anree Saint-Amour (1 sack last season) or four-star defensive end commit Jordan Woods, one of the biggest recruits of the 2016 cycle. If a couple of those guys can make something happen from the edge, I feel confident that the big guys -- namely Kyle Cerge-Henderson and Francis Kallon -- can do their part in the middle of the defense.
When it's all said and done, what we really need is more speed. While it's true that there are some talented offensive lines on Tech's schedule for next season (Clemson and UGA jump out), most are not world-beaters. If you can exploit their weaknesses early, it's possible to win an individual battle multiple times over the course of a game. Tech just couldn't do that consistently last season.
Offensive line play is important. So is quarterback play, and so is blocking from your skill position players. However, given the talent that Tech lost from its secondary last season, the absolute most critical part of the 2016 football team will be the defensive line. You'd be amazed at how much a defense that is sub-par overall can get away with if it could only get a timely sack here and there throughout the season. It doesn't take much to win games if you constantly have your opponent facing third-and-long or even second-and-long, just so long as you continue to keep up that pressure that got you in that positive situation in the first place throughout the series.
The 2016 season is going to be one of two things: exciting or borderline vulgar. The only way to keep it more of the former than the latter is to make sure that the talent we do have -- much of which is on that defensive line -- is utilized properly and efficiently. Given the early struggles of the offensive line and other parts of the team, Tech's ability to finally pressure the quarterback will be the difference between winning and losing.
If the sacks come early and often, be prepared for a successful season. If they don't, just run.