I wrote this article very much with a lot of hindsight, but the intent is for it to have no hindsight. What a sentence. Rather than this be a Rearview Mirror where we look at what actually happened, here we will look only with the starry-eyed wonder that comes with not having actually played the season yet. Of note, the majority of the poll responded looking for a 90s “post-view,” while the comments were split but seemingly pointed towards the 90s, as well. So, because I was interested in it, it’s time to talk 1991 Season Preview. Hope springs eternal, yadda yadda yadda, even though that’s a baseballism. Let’s dive in.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what happened last year. Despite what the pollsters think, the Colorado Buffaloes did not and do not deserve a national championship. Their one loss was a tight week three contest again an Illinois team in Champaign that would go on to finish ranked no. 24 by the only poll that matters, the Coaches, after a bowl loss to Clemson in Tampa. This loss was augmented by a 33-31 win against a subpar Missouri team in Columbia that only happened because of an officiating error that gave them a fifth down and a 10-9 squeaker against Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl that would have been a loss had it not been for a clipping penalty on Raghib Ismail. But enough about them, what about us?
As for the Jackets, we finished unbeaten, with only a tie at Kenan Memorial against the North Carolina Tar Heels blemishing our record, which came in week six. The Jackets started out strong, handling North Carolina State, the bye week, Chattanooga, and no. 25 South Carolina at home in three straight weeks. The 27-6 upset of the ranked Gamecocks on ESPN thrust the Jackets into the national polls, which led to their position at no. 18 heading into the Maryland game, the newest ACC matchup on the schedule. Following that 31-3 beatdown on the road, the Jackets again crept up the polls, sitting at no. 15 when our orange and purple-clad rivals from Auburn on a Lake, who were ranked no. 15, came to Grant Field. The Tech escaped with a narrow win, 21-19, in front of a crowd that was 3,000 tickets oversold. It was then, now ranked no. 11, that Tech ran into trouble in Chapel Hill. After leading 10-3 at the half, offensive miscues resulted in a trio of fumbles and interceptions and a 13-10 Carolina lead. Stuffed on the one yardline, the Jackets were forced to trot out Scott Sisson for the field goal attempt, resulting in a 13-13 tie.
This would be the first and only misstep for the Jackets on the season.
Tech was back on the Flats the next week for the homecoming game against Duke, a tale as old as time. Somehow, I don’t see that changing any time soon. Anyways, the no. 12 Jackets handled the Blue Devils 48-31, setting them up for an afternoon tilt against the top team in the country, the Virginia Cavaliers, on the road in Charlottesville.
7,000 people more than the stated capacity of Scott Stadium showed up for the game, nationally televised on CBS. And what a game it was. The Jackets were down early, but battled back despite the two touchdown hole at the half, and battled enough to put themselves in position to win with seven seconds remaining on the clock. By then, it was up to Sisson once more to put the team, and indeed the season, on his back. His kick sailed between the uprights from 37 yards out to hand Tech a 41-38 lead they would not relinquish. The celebratory fires burned on campus into the night.
Despite having beaten the top team in the country, it should not be presumed that it was smooth sailing from there for the now-no. 7 ranked Tech team. In their first-ever matchup against the Virginia Tech Hokies, our Tech outlasted the Virginians in a 6-3 slugfest at home on the Flats. After a pleasant 42-7 romp in Winston-Salem, Tech had one more road game in the regular season, up in Athens, whose team was unranked. No. 3 Tech won handily 40-23, setting themselves up for a Citrus Bowl berth against a no. 19 Nebraska team. Down in Orlando, the Jackets did enough to earn the one-place bump in the Coaches Poll, finishing in first in the nation after their 45-21 win against the Cornhuskers.
Shawn Jones (QB) - Jones made quite the impression this past season after a stellar sophomore campaign. On the year, he dominated the position for the Jackets, racking up 2008 yards through the air, along with 13 touchdown passes, while running for 277 more on the ground, finding himself in the end zone another six times the old fashioned way.
William Bell (RB) - Other than Jones, Bell was the workhorse of the offense, rushing for almost 900 yards, while pulling in thirteen receptions, pushing his offensive total north of 1,000 yards. Between the two, he found the end zone seven times and, thanks to his stellar performance in the Virginia game, onto the cover of Sports Illustrated once.
Emmett Merchant and Bobby Rodriguez (WR) - The tandem evenly split a heavy workload roughly evenly, both finishing just shy of 500 yards receiving on the season. However, Rodriguez also torched defenders for another 53 yards on two carries, pushing him ahead of his partner in the passing arsenal.
Willie Clay (DB) - While down just a hair from his total last year, Clay still managed to reel in three interceptions on the year. Meanwhile, his status on special teams should not be understated, given that he also handled a handful of punt returns scattered through 11 games on the year. Look for him to remain an integral part of both rotations.
Ken Swilling (DB) - Swilling played in just nine games on the season, but certainly made his presence known when he was on the field. His five interceptions led the way in terms of counting stats, and his performance was justly rewarded with his selection as a consensus All-American pick.
Scott Sission (K) - The man saved the season with his leg not once, not twice, and probably not three times, though North Carolina, Virginia, and Virginia Tech are the ones that first come to mind. He led the team in scoring, and, well, the aura of having the foot that changes games is tough to shake.
Bobby Ross and Ralph Friedgen (HC and OC) - Now in their fifth season together, look for them to continue the growth the team has seen up and down the roster since they replaced the previous regime. With a national championship validating their progress, the future looks bright for this pair.
Stefen Scotton (RB) - The runningback was a trusty option for the offense last year, as his 261 yards of rushing offense complemented an average pass of 7.9 yards. Though he wasn’t Tech’s top performer, he did make good use of his touches as a secondary option in the offensive threat.
T. J. Edwards (RB) - Right behind Scotton in the counting stats department was T. J. Edwards. He added another 300 or so yards, split between a majority on the ground and the remainder through the air. Those yards through the air came on 5 successful catches, and he averaged 16.2 yards each time he reeled one in.
vs. Penn State: The Nittany Lions come off another strong year under an aging Joe Paterno, who is now 65, and has established them as a consistent, known quantity on the Eastern Seaboard. They’re still just a few years out from a national title of their own, and are nowBig Ten-bound, having announced they received an invitation next year. They’re a tough out any year, and this one will be no different.
at Boston College: There wasn’t much going in the Eagles’ favor last year, as they finished a pedestrian 4-7 on the season. It’s a year of firsts for them, though, as the Big East begins sponsoring football, ending their life as an independent. They’ve got a new head coach, though, by the name of Tom Coughlin. Maybe that’ll spark some life into the program that hasn’t seen much success since Doug Flutie’s excellent run in Chestnut Hill.
Virginia: Hahahahahahahahahaha. There’s always joy to be found winning in Charlottesville, and, well, to put it nicely, their season fell apart after their heartbreaking loss to the Yellow Jackets as the no. 1 team in the country. However, they return talent and shouldn’t be laughed off, with an outside shot at making something magical happen again this year.
at Clemson: Clemson is a good football team, but it seems they can never really put it all together. Despite their national title about a decade ago, they can’t seem to avoid a pair of losses that essentially shuts them out of the title conversation. Consistently good, but they can never put it all together. They’ll probably be good again this year, but they’ll lose another pair that crushed their hopes and dreams.
at North Carolina State: Three bowl games in the past three season indicate the level the Wolfpack are playing at. There’s not a supremely sharp trend apparent, but they aren’t bad, either. They match up well against the brand of football the Jackets have been playing under Ross.
Maryland: The Terrapins are a long way from the three straight ACC titles they won in the early part of the decade under current Tech coach Bobby Ross. Ever since, they’ve been mediocre-to-bad. There’s no signs pointing to them fixing their existential issues this year that have been plaguing them for a while now.
at South Carolina: They’ve been okay lately, starting seasons strong, but never putting together a run big enough to span a season. Their last bowl game came in 1988, a loss to Indiana to cap their 8-3 season, roughly a high water mark for them since their 10-2 984 campaign.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels hired Mack Brown in 1988 as a replacement for Dick Crum, who had decreasing returns to scale in the winning department as his career progressed. Brown’s teams were abysmally awful in his first two years, winning a grand total of two games between them (one against Tech), but last year marked a step in the right direction. With how they played against the Jackets in a great year for Tech, a more pessimistic man would be worried about this matchup.
at Duke: The Blue Devils were finally trending in the right direction under Steve Spurrier, even splitting an ACC championship a few short seasons ago. In football! I know, crazy! But, hes gone, and they’re mediocre again. Such is the dilemma of Duke football.
Furman: With a tie the last time out somewhat-assuaging-but-also-making-worse the embarrassment of losing to a lower division team, the defending national champions had better handle this team thoroughly.
Wake Forest: In their Al Groh years, they were roughly .500 most seasons, never much worse or much better. Hmm. Noted. Since then, they had both one decent year, and two years in the dregs of the conference. With the trends firmly pointed down for the Demon Deacons, there should be little change to their outlook for this season.
Athens: They’ve been mediocre the two years since Vince Dooley left. Though he went out on a high note with back to back 9-3 seasons capped by bowl wins, their legendary coach is gone. This is not a sad thing.
I predict a 10-2 year for the Yellow Jackets. Though Clemson, Penn State, Virginia, and perhaps North Carolina State represent daunting opponents, Tech returns quite a bit of its offensive firepower, some key defensive cornerstones, and the brain trust that got them to the heights we experienced last year. Thus, there’s enough fluff on the schedule to boost Tech’s baseline, and enough tough matchups that boil down to essentially a coin flip that a few of those should reliably break Tech’s way. I see losses to Penn State and one of the other three aforementioned teams on the way to hopefully a higher quality bowl bid in the upcoming year. Go Jackets.
So, how’d I do? I was born seven years after this would have come out and Tech was hardly on my radar before showing up as a freshman. A lot of the nineties pop culture references fell by the wayside when I realized I didn’t know what I was talking about. I also don’t usually write about football. Consider it the history editor doing his part when the football schedule got pushed back. Anyways, if you have memories of the year, comments, or questions, let us know below.