Georgia Tech opens a new era on Monday night in Atlanta, moving on from Justin Thomas, Dedrick Mills, Harrison Butker, and a few others who were longtime contributors to the Yellow Jackets' on-field success. As such, the team has several questions they'll look to answer against their third straight SEC opponent under the bright lights of Atlanta's brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
1. Who's this team's quarterback?
Likely the biggest question weighing on everyone's mind coming into this game, although it didn't always seem like it would be that way. As recently as two months ago, most of us would've agreed that it was basically a foregone conclusion that this team would be led by Matthew Jordan given his experience and track record. In the time since, more and more doubt has been cast on that situation, as speculations of who will start at QB have shifted away from Jordan and towards TaQuon Marshall, Lucas Johnson, and Jay Jones. It should be noted, too, that there's a distinct possibility that the QB who starts the game doesn't finish it, particularly if things aren't going well. Jacket fans will hope to get a little more clarity on the QB situation on Monday -- if they don't get it, it'll be a bad thing.
2. What production should we expect from the B-Backs?
Georgia Tech had only one player on the preseason All-ACC team this year, and dismissed him from the program shortly after that honor was announced. When Marcus Marshall transferred to James Madison after the 2016 season, there was minimal concern -- Dedrick Mills had shown potential to be the best B-Back of the Paul Johnson era, and replacing his backup would be a very manageable task. Now, needing to replace both of last season's primary B-Backs looks far more daunting. Redshirt sophomore Kirvonte Benson will get the start and be supplemented by true freshman Jerry Howard and redshirt sophomore Quaide Weimerskirch. There's reason for optimism with each of those guys, but Tech fans will be watching very intently to see what the B-Back position looks like this season, getting a first look at each player in live action.
3. Will the defense maintain its aggression from the end of 2016, and the results that came with it?
For large sections of the last several years, Ted Roof's defense has largely played a "bend, don't break" style that has lacked any amount of aggression to it that would give it the chance to be effective. When blitzes are added and cornerbacks reduce the cushion given to receivers, things tend to go better -- they do a better job of forcing mistakes, and are in better position to take advantage of those mistakes by creating turnovers. Even still, the scheme has fluctuated from game-to-game and season-to-season, and the success of the defense as a whole has correlated directly. The final few games of 2016 (starting with Georgia Tech's win in Blacksburg), the defense was more aggressive. It also got results, as it tends to. Now, the question becomes whether that aggression will carry over into 2017. It seems like a game against Tennessee, who replaces their quarterback among other pieces on offense, would be a prime candidate for trying to force mistakes with more aggressive play calls. Most of the defense returns, and there seems to be plenty of depth on the defensive line and in the secondary, but we'll learn quickly on Monday whether the aggression will come with it.
4. Should we have any confidence in the kicking game?
Going into 2017, Georgia Tech finds itself needing to replace both its starting placekicker and punter. Long-time starter (and beacon of reliability) Harrison Butker graduated after 2016 and has moved on to the NFL, where he's now kicking for the Carolina Panthers. Long-time punter Ryan Rodwell also graduated, taking significant experience with him after multiple years of being the team's primary punter. Incoming true freshman Pressley Harvin III is set to take over the punting duties, and has an absolute rocket of a leg. That said, with no game experience, the team will need to be careful of any potential hiccups that could result from starting a true freshman. Meanwhile, the kicking battle has been between walk-on Shawn Davis and incoming freshman Brenton King. Combined, they've attempted no field goals and only a single kickoff at the college level. I'm addition, there's some lack of clarity on which will perform which duties, as King has battled injuries and neither has separated himself well enough in practice to definitively be named the starter. After years of being spoiled by Butker's touchbacks and ability to hit long field goals, it could be something of a rude awakening for Yellow Jacket fans on Monday as the team looks to break in a new kicker.
5. How will the team perform under the brightest of lights?
Perhaps the biggest of these questions, Georgia Tech brings back plenty of experience on both sides of the ball, except at a few key positions. They now open the season in their own timeslot, in a brand new stadium, with the nation's eyes upon them. This is a team who hasn't done well over the last few years in national spotlight games where there's nothing else on (usually on Thursday nights, but also including the 2012 season opener in Blacksburg, which was also played on Labor Day night). Now, against a favored Tennessee team that comes in ranked and with higher expectations on the national level, Georgia Tech is under pressure to perform well and show that they belong in national spotlight games like this. How will they respond to the challenge? We'll find out on Monday how they respond when the lights are brightest and the nation's eyes are focused on Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The long offseason is finally over. It's time to stop talking, and start playing. Here's to starting the season off on the right foot.