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It’s Time to Lose Small

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It doesn’t always have to be about the final score when looking for positive signs of development.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Georgia Tech Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an old adage that’s used to describe the expected program trajectory when a coach is hired to take over a team that will require a rebuild: Lose Big, Lose Small, Win Small, Win Big.

Essentially, if this trajectory is followed, the first year will be especially brutal (often including a “youth movement” where freshmen and sophomores get a majority of the playing time) and the team might only win 1-2 games, if any at all. A majority of the losses will be blowouts, and will see a lot of opponents using backups in the fourth quarter. The eye test will probably show some improvement throughout the year, although the stats and scoreboards will not reflect that improvement in a noticeable way.

The second year, the team will win a few more games and may approach bowl eligibility. The signs of improvement will be visible everywhere, including on the scoreboard — the team that was previously getting blown out regularly is now in competitive situations late in most every game, even if they don’t end up pulling off a win. They may also pull an upset, or put a scare into a team that is a huge favorite. From there, year 3 likely involves making a bowl game, and year 4 is when you would expect to see a team approaching its peak and perhaps competing to win its division.

For an example of this within the ACC, look at what Bronco Mendenhall did after taking over for Mike London at Virginia: they went 2-10 in his first season, 6-7 in year 2 (including a couple of upsets to propel them to bowl eligibility), 8-5 in year 3 (with several close or OT losses), and won the Coastal Division before playing in the Orange Bowl in year 4.

If we buy in to the idea that 2019 was Geoff Collins’ “Year 0” as head coach at Georgia Tech (I do buy into that idea, for the record), then 2021 would be “Year 2”, which tells us that it’s time for Georgia Tech to Lose Small.

Now, to be clear, Losing Small does not consist of losing to everyone on the schedule — Losing Small means beating teams in games where you have a major talent advantage, and even winning one or more games where you have equal or slightly better talent.

However, in games where your team is very outgunned in terms of talent, Losing Small would imply keeping the game competitive for as long as possible and not having the other team absolutely wipe the floor with you for 60 minutes. This brings us to Georgia Tech’s upcoming game against Clemson.

In last year’s #WeirdCOVIDYear rendition of the Georgia Tech-Clemson rivalry, the Tigers led 52-7 at halftime before winning 73-7 in the most lopsided ACC game that either program had ever been a part of. While nobody in the ACC can feel disappointed that they lost to Clemson at this point, there was quite a bit of disappointment from the Georgia Tech fanbase at just how bad the scoreboard looked at the end of the game. (Not to mention Clemson adding insult to injury via their walk-on, fourth-string QB going 5-for-7 for 74 yards and 2 touchdowns in the fourth quarter.)

While Clemson is still a lot better than Georgia Tech and was expected to win the game handily, part of the reason it got so out-of-hand was the Yellow Jackets’ offensive game plan.

When up against a major talent disadvantage, an offensive coordinator should aim to limit possessions, run the clock, and try to keep their own defense (and the opposing offense) off the field for as much time as possible. When the other team is so much better, giving them more plays and more chances with the ball only increases the probability that they’re going to demonstrate how much better they are. On the other hand, limiting possessions and burning clock means that if something randomly happens to your team’s benefit (a turnover, a broken play going for a touchdown, the other team muffs a punt, etc.), you’re maximizing the impact that random event has on the outcome of the game. That upside comes along with the added benefit of limiting the number of snaps that your own defense has to play (keeping them fresher), and also keeping the opponent’s offense off the field (limiting their ability to get into a rhythm). This is a well-known approach and is typically the strategy you’ll see a major underdog use in trying to pull an upset.

That’s why I was so confused and frustrated last year when Georgia Tech’s offense came out running up-tempo and throwing the ball on early downs — in doing so, they burned minimal clock, forced their defense to play more snaps, and gave Clemson as many opportunities as possible to score. The Tigers had the ball 10 times in the first half and rewarded the Yellow Jackets with 7 touchdowns and a field goal. Their first five possessions even included two turnovers, and they still scored 52 points before halftime.

Again, this was made possible in part by Georgia Tech doing everything in its power to maximize the number of opportunities Clemson had. The Yellow Jackets had the ball 10 times in the first half, and only one of those possessions burned more than 1:30 off the clock. Lining up, taking a knee three times and punting would allow a team to burn 2:00 of clock without even managing a first down. (I’m not advocating for that as an offensive strategy — just saying that Georgia Tech could burn more clock without having to sustain a drive.)

Georgia Tech opened this week as a 29-point underdog and will almost certainly lose to Clemson on Saturday. That’s okay — the Tigers haven’t lost to a normal in-conference opponent (not counting Notre Dame last year) since a weird Friday night in Syracuse back in 2017, and have only even been made to taste their own blood a few times since then. However, when opponents have kept games close against Clemson, the game plans followed the game-shortening script mentioned above. In last year’s Boston College game, the Eagles limited Clemson to only 10 possessions, made two of their own possessions take up 12:55 of game clock (including a drive that lasted 5:13 and ended in a punt), and returned a fumble 97 yards for a touchdown. Clemson finally took their first lead with around 11:00 left in the game and ended up winning, but Boston College nearly pulled off the upset as a 31-point underdog.

Nobody should have any real expectations that the Yellow Jackets will pull an upset in this spot. (If they do pull the upset, that would be incredible for all involved! It’s just not fair to expect it.) The development point that we need to see from Geoff Collins’ Georgia Tech program on Saturday is a game plan that makes sense and keeps the game relatively close on the scoreboard into the second half. The offense should be waiting until late in the play clock to snap the ball, and should largely call for run plays or high-percentage throws that keep the clock moving, with a few deep shots mixed in. The defense should be noticeably aggressive, trying to confuse the Tigers’ offensive line and sophomore QB D.J. Uiagalelei, trying to generate negative plays, and trying to create turnovers. (That probably also results in some big plays for Clemson, but hey, shoot your shot.)

Overall, we need to see Georgia Tech come out with a game plan that is noticeably different than the ones they used against Northern Illinois and Kennesaw State, and different than the ones they will use against Pittsburgh, Virginia, or Boston College. This game is a different beast, and needs to be treated differently if the Yellow Jackets are to avoid another embarrassing final score.

They’re likely going to lose, and that’s okay — we just need to see them Lose Small.

Get more of my thoughts on Georgia Tech’s win over Kennesaw State, their upcoming game against Clemson, 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.