published Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Wiedmer: Georgia Tech's Johnson needs big 2014

  • photo
    Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson watches from the sideline during the Music City Bowl in Nashville in this Dec. 30, 2013, file photo.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Georgia Tech football coach Paul Johnson was minutes removed from Monday's 25-17 loss to Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl, technically minutes into the 2014 season.

Asked about a reverse he'd called late in the fourth quarter, a reverse that became a safety that all but sealed the outcome, Johnson replied: "If it had worked you know you would be calling me a genius. If it doesn't work you can call me a dumb [blankety-blank]."

To some extent it's the same for every coach. Even Alabama coach Nick Saban no doubt has heard at least a wee amount of grumbling for failing to expect Auburn to return a field-goal attempt on the final play of the Iron Bowl, a return that became a Tigers touchdown and a titanic Tide defeat. And Saban has won three of the past four BCS titles.

But Johnson hasn't won much of anything of late at Tech, especially bowl games, where he is now 1-5. Throw in a 1-5 record against Georgia and a 1-15 mark since 2010 against Clemson, UGA, Miami and Virginia Tech and it's easy to see why Yellow Jackets fans might be buzzing about whether he remains the coach to elevate this program past unimportant bowls.

This is not to say Johnson's resume isn't the equal or better of most in his profession. He's won at least 10 games on seven occasions in his 17 total seasons as a head coach, including once at Navy, where he won at least eight games in each of his final five seasons after going 2-10 his first year there.

Before that, during five hugely successful seasons at Division I-AA Georgia Southern, his teams won two national championships.

And his start at Tech certainly mirrored that success. After going 9-4 his first season, the Jackets finished 10-3 and were Atlantic Coast Conference champs his second year, though losing to Iowa in the Orange Bowl.

But the seasons since have been as follows: 6-7, 8-5, 7-7 and 7-6 this year with three losses in the final four games, including falling to Georgia after building a 20-0 lead against a Bulldogs team playing without star quarterback Aaron Murray.

Of further concern for Tech loyalists should be this year's 11 senior starters, not counting punter Sean Poole. At season's dawn -- especially after the Jackets won their first three, including a 38-14 road win at Duke -- this team looked capable of big things. Especially since it wouldn't meet Florida State until the ACC title game.

Instead, the defense surrendered 38 or more points four times, the offense scored 21 or fewer four times (including the Music City Bowl) and Tech fans are now left with more questions than answers going forward, including whether the Jackets have hit a ceiling with Johnson remaining committed to the triple-option attack.

A single quote from Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze for all Jackets to ponder: "It's tough to play them in a short amount of time."

But bowls give you an eternity of time to perfect your plan. So the question for Tech loyalists is whether they feel Johnson's triple option again can wreak havoc throughout the ACC regular-season schedule, or whether six years in the league have given conference foes enough time to figure out the attack in similar fashion to Tech's bowl opponents.

How hot is the seat under Johnson entering 2014? As with any job, you first must feel certain you have someone who can better a pretty good record before you fire Johnson. Tech canned Chan Gailey after the 2007 season believing that his 44-32 overall record after six years -- a mark that included no losing marks within the ACC -- could be improved. Over six years, Johnson has done exactly that, his conference mark of 31-17 noticeably better than Gailey's 28-20 league record.

But to focus on the last four years is to see a different picture. Johnson is 28-25 in that span compared to Gailey's 30-21 in his final four seasons. Each coach owns a 1-3 bowl mark for those years.

Given that, and the argument that Johnson won with Gailey's players during his first two seasons on the job, it would appear Johnson has been little more than a wash compared to Gailey.

But that doesn't mean anyone else necessarily could do far better. There remains a perception that Tech isn't terribly lenient regarding athletes in its admissions standards. If that's true, almost anyone would have to pause before tackling the Jackets job.

Then again, it's tough to see Johnson dramatically improving his current situation if he can't find a quarterback with serviceable passing skills to loosen defenses almost entirely committed to stopping Tech's running game.

As former Tech coach and player Bill Curry often has said regarding today's college football: "It's all about whether or not my quarterback can beat your defense."

If your quarterback can't consistently deliver the 15-yard down-and-out with velocity and accuracy, it's almost impossible to win today, and Johnson's recent quarterbacks have struggled with that throw, including current starter Vad Lee.

Beyond that, Tech's rush defense -- ranked 11th nationally entering the Ole Miss game -- gave up 221 yards to the Rebels, which was 70 more than the Jackets managed. And the Rebs were just eighth in the SEC running the ball.

There also were Johnson's coaching gambles against Ole Miss. Though these things have a way of evening out, his two surprise plays -- a fake punt and the ill-fated reverse that became a safety -- both backfired.

As he exited the Music City on Monday, Johnson said of the Jackets' performance, "[We] didn't play well enough in any facet to really win the game."

No Tech fan would deny that. Going forward, the question becomes whether Johnson's Jackets can play well enough to win enough to justify keeping him around past the 2014 season.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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