Georgia Tech returns to action Thursday night riding a two game winning streak and welcoming the struggling Virginia Cavaliers. In Tony Elliott’s first year, Virginia is 2-4 with wins over Richmond and Old Dominion, a close loss to Syracuse, and comfortable losses to Illinois, Duke, and Louisville. If you enjoy points, this might not be the game for you. Both teams are significantly better on defense than offense so far in 2022; a repeat of the fireworks between these two teams last year looks quite unlikely. Let’s dig into what the numbers have to say about this one.
When GT Has the Ball
Georgia Tech has excitingly posted back to back wins under interim Coach Brent Key, but that isn’t because of the offense. This unit sits close to the bottom of the P5 in most efficiency metrics, and there haven’t been a lot of big plays to help overcome that. Virginia is not a very disruptive defense (below average in run stuffs and havoc rate), but the Cavaliers are very, very sturdy. They’re around the 70th percentile in success rate and yards per play allowed and into the 80s in EPA/play allowed. On this side of the ball, the match ups go decisively to the Hoos, although the slate of opposing offenses they have faced so far isn’t overly impressive.
Nick Jackson is far and away the most productive player in the middle of the Virginia defense, and he grades out above average with a 70 on PFF. He will be chasing Hassan Hall all over the field; if GT’s interior offensive linemen can get to the second level and slow him down, it will go a long way in creating the kind of space GT needs. The lack of run stuffs that this defense has created makes me feel a little better that GT can avoid so many of the second and long situations where Chip Long has continued to insist on calling inefficient run plays.
Jeff Sims needs good down and distance situations to throw because this is a dangerous pass defense. Virginia has a pair of cornerbacks who have been excellent so far this season. Anthony Johnson has an 86 PFF grade while racking up two interceptions and seven passes defended, and Fentrell Cypress II is just behind at 82. Leo Blackburn made his debut last week for GT; no one else has shown much on the outside so far this season, and this will be a tough test for Blackburn in just his second college game. This looks like another heavy Nate McCollum game as far as target share.
Up front, old friend Chico Bennett leads the way for Virginia with four sacks, although PFF much prefers the down to down play of Paul Akere and Kam Butler. This isn’t a Pittsburgh level defensive line, but the offensive tackles for Tech will have to perform well to give Sims a chance in this one. The Virginia pass rush is largely what kept it in the game against an increasingly impressive Syracuse team.
Where can Georgia Tech manufacture some offense? This looks again like it needs to be a heavy quarterback run game. Virginia is stingy against the run but less so when it comes to the opposing signal callers. Last week, Brock Domann had nine carries for 71 yards filling in for Malik Cunningham, and Riley Leonard had nine carries for 60 yards to help propel Duke’s offensive output against Virginia. Early down passing in the middle of the field and quarterback runs look like GT’s best path to generate efficient offense. Scoring more than 21 in this one would be a success.
When Virginia Has the Ball
Thankfully, the match ups are almost as tilted in GT’s direction on this side of the ball. Virginia has been ghastly on offense so far this year, low lighted by the 9th percentile EPA/pass number that is borderline shocking after the season that Brennan Armstrong put together last year. That number is dragged down by his seven interceptions, but he has also completed only 55% of his passes and is in the 10th percentile in yards per drop back.
The biggest threat to GT looks to be Virginia putting together efficient running. Running backs Perris Jones and Xavier Brown are the two highest graded regulars on the UVA offense, and Brennan Armstrong showed last year he was capable of finding empty spaces against the GT defense. But the Virginia offensive line has not been consistent or effective in creating space. Much like GT, the highest graded regular offensive lineman for UVA grades out around 60, and the starting tackles have been sieves. The increased disruption levels we’ve seen from GT recently should continue this week.
Looking at Virginia’s receiving weapons, it’s been a mostly disappointing year. Keytaon Thompson sliced up GT last year and will once again prevent a huge challenge in the middle of the Tech defense. This will be a tough test for KJ Wallace, who is coming off of his best game of the year. Outside, the Virginia receivers have struggled to get anything going. Dontayvion Wicks has 25 catches over four games but has graded out at just 57. I don’t expect the kind of coverage busts in this one that allowed him to run up and down the field on GT last year. Billy Kemp IV has struggled with injuries so far this year. We should see a very, very different result in the passing game compared to what we witnessed in Charlottesville last year. GT should be able to disrupt Armstrong, and he’s put balls in play for the defense every game this season.
I expect the defense to hold up well for the fourth game in a row. Virginia doesn’t have much of an offensive line, and Georgia Tech doesn’t have the glitchy secondary players that largely lost the game last year.
For the second game in a row, the spread sits right at three points, although this time Tech is on the positive side of that ledger. Our model here at FTRS, The Binion Index, sees things slightly towards GT, picking Tech as a 5.1 point favorite with an implied 64% probability of winning. Ratings wise, Virginia has been trending down and GT trending up for several consecutive weeks now.
Looking at the more granular level, things look pretty even; we identified 14 areas of advantage for Virginia and only eight for GT. Schedule adjustments once again matter a lot here though; those numbers come against the 67th rated schedule so far for the Cavaliers and the 20th rated schedule for GT, per FPI. That’s why you see the overall projection tilted in GT’s favor.
So far this season, Virginia has underwhelmed preseason expectations and have been trending even worse as the defense has looked more susceptible in its last two games. They’ve played an average schedule so far, which includes a particularly weak slate of opposing offenses. GT has had three straight solid defensive performances, and the offense showed more encouraging glimpses with the return of Leo Blackburn and the increased reliance on Jeff Sims in the run game. Look for Sims to run early and often again in this one and for the defense to create a couple of short fields. GT could win this one by multiple scores if the offense can start finishing drives.
Vegas: GT by 3
My Pick: Georgia Tech 24-17
The Binion Index: GT by 5 (GT to cover)
Year to Date Against the Spread: 51%, Goal: >=55%
Year to Date in GT Games: 4-1
Average Absolute Error: 13.1 points per game (Goal <= 12.5 points per game)