I'm not giving grades this week, for two reasons. First, the two Georgia Tech teams we saw on either side of halftime were just too different to consistently grade. Second, I'd rather address what we've seen so far as a whole and establish what to expect as we enter ACC play.
Before we get started here, let's get one thing straight. Georgia Tech has played three games so far this season, and has won each of them. They're 3-0, and that's as good as I could have asked for from a results standpoint (if you were hoping they'd be 4-0 at this point, you're probably disappointed, confused, and need help with your counting skills). They haven't lost yet. I'm really happy about that. I like when Georgia Tech wins games. Those are the best games.
Now that we have that covered, though, I think it's time that we look at what kind of a team we have, as compared to what kind of team we thought we had before this season.
It's been a pretty weird three weeks of football for this team. Let's start with the Wofford game. The Jackets brought on the Terriers for what looked like, by all accounts, a warmup game (a "tune-up" game, if you've seen The Longest Yard). That's not what Tech got. The Jackets scored 10 points in the first half, including a last-second field goal, to lead the game by 1 point. Wofford's 9 points included a 92-yard touchdown run right up the middle of Georgia Tech's defense. That was pretty hard to watch. After halftime, though, Georgia Tech came out and scored on every drive, except on the one that ended the game. They held Wofford to only 10 points over that span, although a touchdown punctuated a drive that made everyone in White and Gold reminisce about the "Paul Johnson Death March" that we've seen less and less of in recent years. For a first game, it wasn't great, but maybe we just had some wrinkles to iron out.
Then, we go to New Orleans to open up Tulane's shiny, new on-campus stadium. We expected some competition, but still a fairly easy victory. What we got was a first-play fumble and two first-half turnovers by Justin Thomas, leading to an early touchdown and a missed field goal for Tulane. We also got a 61-yard touchdown pass by the Green Wave on blown coverage, and also needed a Quayshawn Nealy pick-six and another last-second Harrison Butker field goal to have a 24-21 lead. The second half? Similar to the previous week's, at least to a certain degree. The offense came out looking much better, scoring two touchdowns and on its way to a third when the game ended. The defense didn't allow another point by the Green Wave, and the Jackets took home a struggle-filled 17-point win if there ever was one. It was a bit of a daunting result for Tech fans, but there were some intangibles at play given the heat and the occasion for the home crowd.
Then this past weekend, we hosted Paul Johnson's former employer, Georgia Southern. The Jackets come out guns blazing with 350 yards and 35 points in the first half, blowing up the Eagles all over the field. It takes just 3 plays to get on the board, mainly thanks to a 60+ yard run by Charles Perkins to start the game. Justin Thomas started 7/8 passing and had 3 touchdowns by the intermission, and really looked in sync with DeAndre Smelter and a returning Darren Waller. It was a pretty glorious half of football from every standpoint.
After halftime, we saw the same thing we saw in the previous two games -- a completely different team on either side of the half. The offense looked flat. Things were out of sync. Justin Thomas finished the game with 3 completions on his final 15 attempts (that's a mark of 10/23, for those keeping score at home). The offense couldn't stay on the field, and the defense was getting exhausted as they were continuously gashed by Georgia Southern. All of a sudden, this team that should've been a final warm-up game was not only giving us trouble, but actually winning the football game. Luckily, thanks to some defensive heroics by Jamal Golden and KeShun Freeman, Justin Thomas had one final drive to save the day. He did that, including a couple of key runs and a touchdown pass to Deon Hill, and Yellow Jackets fans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. That same Jackets offense that took 3 plays to score its first touchdown of the game took more than 29:30 to score its first points of the second half.
It's a lot to take in (those were some pretty high-level overviews), but I'm starting to notice some patterns in this team that we need to be aware of and mentally prepared for moving forward. I want to address this first by looking at the defense (I think they've shown a particularly telling pattern), but then including the offense in this as well.
This defense gives up a lot of big plays.
One of the most common occurrences that we've seen thus far for this team is how the defense has given up big-play touchdowns. Remember Wofford's 92-yard touchdown run? Tulane's 60+ yard touchdown pass? Seemingly half of the touchdowns Georgia Southern scored? All huge plays. For what specifically caused all of those, I'm not entirely sure. Guys are out of position, they're missing tackles at times, they're blowing coverages (presumably). There's a chance that the schemes on those plays were bad, and that it falls on Ted Roof. If that's the case, Roof needs to get it figured out, and fast, before we start taking on some better offenses. I don't think he's the problem though.
Even as we've seen these big plays, haven't you noticed that this defense also can look really, really good at times? There have been times so far when the three offenses we've faced couldn't do anything, especially on the ground. It's actually incredibly refreshing to see the defense have spurts of this dominance, similar to what they did a lot of times last year against the run. Except then they go and give up a huge play, get on their heels, and start to fall apart. It's really confusing, honestly. Know why it's confusing?
This team is inconsistent.
Think back on offense to the second half against Wofford, and especially to the first half against Georgia Southern. I mean, wow, there's a group that's not about to be stopped. They're completing passes, making blocks, moving the ball down field, and generally imposing their will on the other team. It's awesome. Now look at the first half against Wofford, (to a certain degree) the first half against Tulane, and the second half against Georgia Southern, and it's like night and day. Turnovers, missed assignments, out-of-sync passing, occasional bad reads; it's almost like it's not even the same team, and for me, that's mindblowing. This team is maddeningly inconsistent so far this year, for better or worse. They've given us some amazing moments, as well as some real head-shakers.
It's not enough for me to just say they're inconsistent and leave it at that, though. I want to take this root cause analysis a little further. (I'm a big kid now and know these types of terms. Or so I'd like to think.) I don't really think we've seen Georgia Tech play with this inconsistency for a while, and I think I know why we're seeing it this year.
This team is young.
Before you go talking about offseason attrition and saying "I told you so", let me clarify that I'm not referring to that. Sure, it didn't help anything, but I'm not entirely sure that this team would be a whole lot better with any of those guys still on the team right now. No, what I want to talk about is how we had to replace 14 starters this year, if my count is correct (A quarterback, a B-Back, an A-Back, 4 O-Linemen (including Roberts), 3 D-Linemen, a linebacker, a cornerback, a safety, and our punter to top it all off). Replacing them are some juniors and seniors, yes, but also a lot of freshmen and sophomores. I think that youth factor was something that we didn't think about as much as we should have when making predictions. Yes, those guys are talented, and you've seen that when the team is rolling on both sides of the ball. But they're also young and learning, as you've seen when they turn the ball over, miss assignments, and generally make mental errors.
As for what this all means for the rest of the season, I think we have to expect continued inconsistency until the team is able to develop to a point where it's not quite as much of an issue. The good thing about that is that it looks like a lot of our remaining opponents are a little bit unpredictable as well. Look at Virginia Tech -- they go out and beat Ohio State at the Horseshoe by 2 touchdowns, and then come home to a defeat at the hands of Eastern Carolina (a somewhat dangerous team that Virginia Tech should be beating). The other three of the "Big 4" on our schedule? They've had some interesting moments of their own, and there's no telling what they'll be like when we play against them, or what we'll be like for that matter.
Like I said, I think we all need to mentally prepare ourselves for the inconsistency we're going to see the rest of this year. There are going to be some great, exciting moments, and there are going to be some more difficult ones. Now, as much as college football tends to be that way, I'd also say that those good and bad moments are going to happen at even less predictable times than they might usually happen. So fasten your seatbelt. If these first three games have taught us anything, it's that the rest of the season is going to be a wild ride.
What is your assessment of the first quarter of the season? Excited for the rest of the season? Scared?