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Deciding What to Believe

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With what we’ve seen so far this season, I’m getting less sure of what to think.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Clemson Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

We’re only 3 weeks into the 2021 college football season, and it’s already showing signs of being one of the stranger seasons in recent history. The first week saw several surprising upsets by FCS teams, including a ranked Washington team going down to Montana. Ohio State lost at home as a double-digit favorite, dropping a game in The Horseshoe for the first time since Baker Mayfield’s Oklahoma team won there four years earlier. Speaking of, the Sooners have had close calls at home as heavy favorites against Tulane and Nebraska. Notre Dame had a close call at home as a heavy favorite against Toledo. Even within the ACC, long regarded nationwide for its stabile programs and consistent performances as a league (or...something like that), half of the league has already lost an out-of-conference game while favored:

Inconsistency from week-to-week has been a theme for countless teams across the country so far this season, and Georgia Tech has been no exception. Through three weeks, the Yellow Jackets have lost a home game to the otherwise-winless NIU Huskies (ranked #114 by SP+), and have also gone toe-to-toe on the road for 60 minutes against the six-time defending conference champion Clemson Tigers (ranked #5 by SP+). In a 15-day span, we’ve seen one of this team’s worst performances under Geoff Collins, as well as arguably its best.

If you have a good idea of what to make of all of that, I’m all ears, because I’m at a bit of a loss.

One of the Georgia Tech teams that we saw in those games is much more representative of the one that we’ll see for a majority of this season. Will they get pushed around in the trenches, struggle to communicate on defense, and miss opportunities on offense in the way that they did against Northern Illinois? Will they challenge opponents physically up front, play with confidence and composure, and effectively execute strong game plans as they did on Saturday in Death Valley? Time will tell, and it will have a major impact on the outcome of the season.

As the Yellow Jackets gear up to play North Carolina on Saturday, it’s worth mentioning that the Tar Heels have shown some considerable inconsistency themselves early this year. Their opening game against Virginia Tech saw the Tar Heels get bullied around by the Hokies for 60 minutes. UNC was never able to get their offense in rhythm — they were unable to run the ball with any consistency, their largely-new corps of receivers struggled to get any separation downfield, and Sam Howell was sacked 6 times. Their defense also struggled mightily to get off the field (especially early in the game), and they turned the ball over 3 times.

This past weekend, the Tar Heels hosted a Virginia team whose makeup seemed ripe for them to bully Carolina in the same way that the Hokies did two weeks prior. Instead, North Carolina did the bullying for much of the night — they owned the trenches, rushing for nearly 400 yards and allowing only 24 yards on the ground to the Cavaliers, they only allowed 1 sack to Sam Howell, they hit big plays consistently, and sacked Brennan Armstrong 3 times. They did give up over 500 passing yards, but a healthy chunk of those were in the second half as the Tar Heels protected double-digit leads.

Just as Georgia Tech has been majorly inconsistent through through three games so far this year, so has North Carolina, and Saturday’s game will tell us a lot about who each team truly is. The Tar Heels are a better team with a better quarterback, and it’s a huge letdown spot for the Yellow Jackets, so there’s a reason that they’re favored by double digits on the road. (Georgia Tech is roughly a 12-point underdog, as I write this.) If last week’s performance against Clemson translates, the Jackets have a good shot to keep this game close, or win it outright. If that performance continues to translate beyond this weekend, they’ll have a great shot at making me eat my words from two weeks ago. (To be clear, nothing would make me happier.)

We’ll learn a lot on Saturday about whether this program has truly taken a step forward in Year 3, or if last weekend’s near-upset was simply an aberration. As with last week, it’s not the “what” that matters — it’s the “how”. A win over North Carolina would be fantastic, but real signs of growth (or a lack thereof) will be seen in how the game unfolds.

Get more of my thoughts on Georgia Tech’s near-miss against Clemson, their upcoming game against North Carolina, 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.