We’re halfway through Georgia Tech’s 2021 football season, and to say it’s been a roller coaster ride might not do it justice. The incredible low of losing an assumed layup against Northern Illinois to start the season was followed up by three straight impressive performances that had fans riding high...only to be brought crashing back down to Earth by a blowout against Pittsburgh, before finishing up with what I might call a “disappointing win” against Duke two weeks ago. (The result was what we hoped for — the disappointment was in that the path to getting there was far bumpier than it needed to be.)
So, following a bye week, where does that leave us as Georgia Tech enters the second half of its season?
We have seen some development within the program from last year so far this year, but there’s plenty of growth that this season will hopefully involve. Here’s 5 things to keep an eye on down the stretch as we continue to seek signs of development from Geoff Collins, his coaching staff, and their Georgia Tech program.
#1 - More Pressure on Opposing Quarterbacks
In the win over North Carolina, the Yellow Jackets sacked Sam Howell an incredible 8 times.
In their other 5 games, Georgia Tech has managed a grand total of 4 sacks. (Removing Kennesaw State, in 4 non-UNC games against FBS teams, they have managed 2 sacks.)
So far this season, we’ve seen the defense use 3 different defensive base sets (a 4-2-5, a 3-3-5, and a 4-3 against Kennesaw State) to varying degrees of success at different points in games. Aside from the onslaught of pressure against North Carolina, these sets have largely struggled to put any sense of consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. A lack of pressure makes things much more comfortable for those opposing quarterbacks, and will inevitably end up in good secondaries getting shredded.
Adding Keion White to the pass rusher mix should be a major boost, but the issues here go beyond any one player. Whether it’s adjusting which defensive front is being used, changing up personnel groupings in certain situation, sending blitzes from different angles, or anything else, the defensive coaching staff needs to show an ability to generate pressure and disrupt opposing quarterbacks through the rest of this season.
I’ll be watching to see if the sack counts and pressure rates improve over the next few weeks as a signal for whether the defensive coaching is working.
#2 - Clearer Identity on Offense, Leading to More Sustained Drives
Perhaps the most frustrating thing to watch in the previous two games, for me, has been the inability to get Jahmyr Gibbs going in the run game. For a running back of his talent level to go for a combined 24 carries for 30 yards in those two games is hard to stomach. But, Gibbs’ stat line is just a symptom of a larger problem that I see.
In the last 3 games, Georgia Tech’s offense has produced just two offensive possessions that included 10+ plays and ended in scoring points. They’ve scored on plenty of possessions in that time, but almost entirely on shorter, quicker possessions. Why? They rely too much on big plays, and haven’t shown the ability to consistently move the ball. If they don’t hit a big play, there’s a good chance the drive is going to stall out almost immediately. Against Pittsburgh and Duke, Georgia Tech’s offense had the ball 26 times. Of those, 14 possessions (~54%) ended in 5 plays or less without points being scored. Not only is the lack of points bad for the offense, and not only does this negatively impact the field position battle, but putting the defense back on the field after minimal rest is yet another negative effect that this has on the Jackets’ chances to win.
This struggle to get drives started, like Gibbs’ poor stat lines, is related to a lack of identity on offense. There are clearly things that this team does well, as we’ve seen numerous times so far this season. (Just look at Gibbs’ receiving line the past two games — when he gets the ball in space, he’s racked up 207 yards and a touchdown on only 9 touches.) There are also things that they don’t do well, which recently has included running the ball between the tackles, especially when opposing defenses are loading the box. I couldn’t begin to explain why they continue doing things that don’t work well, but it speaks to a lack of identity in scheme and playcalling.
The thing to keep an eye on here, data-wise, is how well Georgia Tech can sustain drives. Cut down on the three-and-outs, and even if possessions still come up empty in terms of scoring, just picking up a couple of first downs on most drives will make a major impact on the team’s chances to win games.
Note: This weekend’s opponent, UVA, has an offense that is pretty horrendous when it comes to the traditional run game. Watch how little they use it, and instead how much they do what they’re best at — passing. That’s an identity.
#3 - Reduce Jeff Sims’ Turnovers
After a freshman campaign where he showed some flashes of high potential as a quarterback in the ACC, the biggest knock on Sims was that he turned the ball over too much. It was fair criticism — as a passer, he threw 13 interceptions on the season out of 257 passing attempts, for an interception rate of 5.1%. (That’s an interception once every 20 passes, roughly.) That’s too high.
So far this year, Sims has thrown 4 interceptions on 80 attempts, for an interception rate of....5.0%. (That’s an interception once every 20 passes, exactly!)
The goal should be to cut that interception rate in half. For reference, last year the ACC saw Trevor Lawrence, Phil Jurkovec, D’Eriq King, Sam Hartman, and Sam Howell all finish with interception rates of less than 2.1%. It’s not necessarily fair to expect Jeff Sims to match or exceed a list of quarterbacks that will include multiple first-round NFL Draft picks as a second-year starter, but the point is that an interception rate of around 2.5% is very attainable, and bringing the turnover rate down will make a huge difference in the team’s ability to keep games close or win them outright.
(Then again, Jurkovec, Howell, and Hartman were all second-year starters at most last year....and isn’t Geoff Collins’ staff selling that they’re developing their roster into NFL-caliber players? Just food for thought.)
I’ll say this too — some of this interception issue lies with Sims’ teammates, including the offensive linemen who protect him and the intended receivers on the other end of those passes. The interceptions to date have not been entirely Sims’ fault in every case, so this item should not be taken as one that’s focused on one player, but rather on the offensive scheme and execution as a whole.
#4 - Stop Getting Blown Out by ACC Teams
Look — getting blown out by Notre Dame or georgia would suck, but we’d understand. Those are more talented programs that are capable of blowouts over most teams in the country. (This may actually not apply with how Notre Dame has played so far this year, but just roll with it for now, especially considering the game will be played in South Bend.)
On the other hand, Georgia Tech has games remaining against four ACC programs that they need to lose small against, at minimum. Current SP+ ratings would favor UVA (45), Virginia Tech (49), Miami (26), and Boston College (35) to win over Georgia Tech (57) on a neutral field, but will likely favor the Jackets against Virginia Tech next week. Losing these games would be one thing — getting blown out would be another. These are programs that Georgia Tech needs to play close games against in order to illustrate development in Year 3.
But, before you dismiss Georgia Tech getting blown out by those teams as a reasonable possibility, consider this — the Yellow Jackets have not shown a consistent track record of playing close games (win or lose) under Geoff Collins.
Fun fact: Geoff Collins has been Georgia Tech's head coach for 21 conference games (including Notre Dame last year).— Spookily Vaccinated Joey (@FTRSJoey) October 22, 2021
6 of them have finished within 1 score. The other 15 were decided by double digits, whether the Jackets won or lost.
For whatever reason, Geoff Collins’ Georgia Tech program has produced a strong track record of playing in games that have already been decided midway through the fourth quarter. There’s rarely late drama. We’ve seen close games this year against Clemson and Duke, but prior to those, the last ACC opponent that they played to within a single score (win or lose) was the season-opening 13-10 win over Florida State last year.
They’ve blown out some teams, but they’ve gotten blown out far more frequently.
In conference games decided by double digits, Georgia Tech under Geoff Collins has gone...— Spookily Vaccinated Joey (@FTRSJoey) October 22, 2021
Overall: 3-12 https://t.co/241f0SgCro
Again, it’s time for this team to lose small. That means not getting blown out by middling, flawed conference opponents. The Panthers may be poised to win the Coastal Division, but the Pittsburgh blowout was cause for concern. No additional losses by more than 10 points in the final 4 conference games would be a positive sign of development.
#5 - Win 2+ Games, Finish 5-7 or Better
This was the measuring stick coming into the season. With a tough schedule in front of them, we wanted to see Georgia Tech finish 5-7 at minimum to feel good about the direction of the program. Do that, and avoid being on the business end of any more blowouts against conference opponents, and there will be reason for optimism heading into Geoff Collins’ Year 4 in 2022.
It’s attainable, too — the final 4 ACC opponents on the schedule are all flawed (at best), and games will be there for winning if the game plans make sense, the execution follows, and in-game adjustments are able to be made. I would also argue that despite a 5-1 record and a #13 ranking, Notre Dame is a potentially winnable game too, even in South Bend. The Irish have hardly been impressive so far this year and are beatable if the Yellow Jackets can play a complete game.
The Jackets need to win twice over the next 6 games to keep pace with expectations.
It’s important that we continue to keep everything in perspective as it relates to this program’s development, but that doesn’t mean excusing every failure. Even in losses, there are opportunities to show development that would point towards program building. The next 4-5 games are an important stretch for this coaching staff — this is their chance to set the narrative heading into the offseason and looking towards 2022.
Get more of my thoughts on Georgia Tech’s upcoming game against Virginia and all of the other action across the ACC on Basketball Conference: The ACC Football Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or anywhere else you normally find podcasts.