Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Expectations Battle Rages On

I don't think there's any doubt - the 2008 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are the biggest unknown in the ACC this season. It might even be fair to say they are the biggest unknown in the country. So much is changing - schemes, coaches, players, attitudes, schedules, etc. How do we know where we'll end up this season? The short answer is that we'll just have to wait until the whistle blows.

That said, radio sports jock Buck Belue recently called out Jacket fans for not having more energy around this season, as he expected big things and couldn't understand why some fans see this year as a down year.

Last week I posted my game-by-game expectations, which basically got us to 7 wins and a bowl game. A case can easily be made for 4 wins and a good case could be made for 8 to 9 wins.

I decided to come at the expectation battle a different way. Let's start with how we ended up in 2007 and try and capture the key elements that drive future results. On a team with coaching and scheme continuity the key elements are easier to judge - schedule, key player losses, returning starters, depth, new talent.

For Georgia Tech it's much more complicated. We have to add new coaching staff, new offensive schemes, new defensive schemes, different playcalling ability and even softer elements like attitude changes and belief systems. So with that, here's my visual on how we go from here (2007) to there (2008).

(Click image to see larger version)

It's still a 7 win season in my book, but how we get there is so different. Let's face it - if Chan Gailey was still the coach, he would have his most difficult challenge yet achieving the vaunted 7-win mark. With all the key player losses and the tougher schedule, he was going to have his hands full. The cupboard is not bare, but folks, let's just remember for a second who we lost - Tashard Choice, Rashaun Grant, Jamaal Evans, Mike Cox, James Johnson, DJ Donley, Matt Rhodes, Kevin Tuminello, Nate McManus, Colin Peek, Darrel Robertson, Adamm Oliver, Philip Wheeler, Gary Guyton, Avery Roberson, Pat Clark, Jamal Lewis, Djay Jones, Joe Gaston, Travis Bell, Durant Brooks, Taylor Bennett, Kyle Manley. I'm sorry, but that a mass exodus of talented expired eligibility.

So my key factors are the following:

Road games @BC, @VT, @Clemson, @UNC, @UGAg. Throw in home games against Miss St, UVA, FSU and Miami, and it's not an easy schedule. We have a few very winnable games, but nothing's going to come easy. For me the schedule alone will be a net 1-2 additional losses for this season.

I listed the losses above. While we have some uber-talented guys ready to step in, they lack the game experience necessary to consistently do their jobs. I'll take an above average 3 year senior starter over an incoming high school phenom almost every time (unless your name is Calvin Johnson). Jonathan Dwyer backed up Tashard Choice, right? Choice backed up PJ Daniels, right? Experience is so important in football. It's not so much making outstanding plays as it is avoiding bad plays. Seniors just don't tend to make as many mistakes. There's a reason that there's a coaches saying that goes like this - add one loss to your season for every freshman you start on your team. Lack of experience is probably a net 1-2 losses in my book this season. Again, this is experience, not talent. Experience matters.

This was a tough one for me. I am a big believer in what this offense will do, but I'm also realistic about the repetition, execution and decision-making required to really make it hum. I don't know if the learning curve will be steady upward throughout the season or if it will be in step-changes, but it will go up-and-to-the-right. They offense will get better and better at some pace during the season. However, I still see the new offense as a detriment in year one, primarily due to turnovers and poor decisions. The new offense is probably a net 1-loss impact on the season, but will move to a positive starting next season.

An ever tougher call than the offense. To be honest, this could be a positive impact. We just don't know yet. The D-Line is the heart-and-soul of this team, but they are also going to be called on to "make plays" by themselves (one-on-one) more this season. The result is that Georgia Tech will see a significant drop in tackles-for-a-loss and sacks, stats for which will led the nation at various times through last season. In addition, we are going to rely on our corners to man-up more often, which leaves them out on an island at times. I really like that Charles Kelly is coaching those guys now, but they are having to change the way they cover, the way they backpedal and turn, how far up they play on the line, how the bump at the line, etc. I am going to be fascinated in how Georgia Tech performs defensively as we move to a more "traditional" defense (did I just start a new scheme debate?). All-in-all, the defensive changes will probably take a season to work through as well, but I see it as a very minor net-negative impact this season. However, we will still have a stout D that will keep us in most games.


Seriously soft stuff on this one, but a potentially huge impact for the season. Paul Johnson is trying to instill new attitudes. It's no longer about the offense or defense. It's about the team. Nobody cares how many stars you had or if you're a walk-on. If you perform in practice you play, period. Practices are very regimented, with little wasted effort (read John Wooden's book on the magic of orchestrated practices). QB's have no special green jerseys in practice. They get hit like everyone else. You will work harder, but also play harder (how many teams play dodgeball at practice). Mental toughness will be taken to a much higher level than under the previous regime. "Four quarters" won't just be something we put on a wristband, it will be a way of life.

Not everyone bought in though, as evidenced by the transfers. The reality is we don't know who's left with doubts. We don't know who's going through the motions or creating negative energy with other players. I guarantee there are still doubts.

Travis Chambers was interviewed by Adamm Oliver for his website recently. He said that a key difference with Paul Johnson is that it is clear that he has a plan for where the team is going. Again, very soft stuff, but if these players buy in, I believe it's at least a net +2 factor in the win column this year. Honestly, I believe this category is almost the make-or-break to a bowl season for me.

What we lose in experience could be made up somewhat with new blood, right? If the outgoing experience is replaced with better talent, then as they gain experience, we will be better off. Logical arguement I think. In this case I think we are upgrading talent at many key positions (just not experience). Josh Nesbitt as QB..... Dwyer at RB...... R.Jones at AB....... M.Johnson at DE....... M.Burnett & M.Edwards at safety...... There are other positions that are a gray area, but all-in-all I think we're putting better talent on the field coming into the year. Once talent marries up with experience, things should kick into another gear.

I had to put this on the board because Paul Johnson's playcalling ability and knowledge of his offense is so complete that it's probably good for a net +1 win on the year. His ability to react and adjust in-game is legendary. He's not a "play-not-to-lose" guy and his game management is going to be a net positive for us. Punt? Who punts people? If you can't get 10 yards in 4 plays, you don't deserve to be on the field! That's the PJ attitude. Nothing conservative about that.

Ok, this is a nebulous thing. I believe there's this undefinable boost that Paul Johnson will provide this season. There's a lot of it in the "TEAM ATTITUDE & BELIEFS" section above and there's a bit of it in the "PLAYCALLING" factor. However, I think there's something else that I just can't put my finger on where he'll make another positive difference. Maybe it's just swagger. I don't know. Bottom-line is that there's some undefinable positive impact to what PJ is doing and how it will play out this season. It's the smallest of the positive factors, but could play a role.

What we have are firm, quantifiable, real factors working against us going into the season, and softer, less definable factors which could lift us back up. That really means a slight pull downwards from last season. That also means what people have said is really true - if Paul Johnson can get us back to a bowl game, he's done a heckuva coaching job this season. Only one of the Jax St / Gardner-Webb wins will count towards bowl eligibility, which makes that challenge a bit harder.

So is it "negative" for fans to think we'll win 5-7 games? It's certainly not "fan-atical". It's just a very realistic, fact-based conclusion. The head speaking. The heart, however, says something very different. The heart sees 8-10 wins and a maybe even an ACC Championship visit. However, the general engineering population tends to defer to their heads, right or wrong.

Again, it's clear - the Jackets are the #1 unknown in the ACC. We're also one of the most fascinating storylines across the nation as people finally get to see what Paul Johnson can do at the BCS level. Whatever happens, it's going to be a ride. Strap yourselves in. Keep you hands in your seat at all times............. and have fun!!