No. 40 Georgia Tech
After quickly moving on from the three-win debacle in 2015, Georgia Tech brings back 17 starters from a nine-win team, nine of which are on an offense that returned to its frustration-inducing ways with a power run game and calculated pass game.
They still face two huge questions: How do they replace quarterback Justin Thomas? And can they improve one of the nation's worst pass rushes?
2016 Record: 9-4 (4-4, ACC)
After opening 3-0, the Yellow Jackets dropped their next three, provoking memories of their nightmare three-win 2015 season. Then they rattled off six wins in their final six games, including road victories over Virginia Tech and Georgia, to 2015 was a blip.
Despite the big turnaround, there were still areas of concern, namely a defense that produced just 18 sacks and an oft-stale offense that had four games with 21 or fewer points.
Head Coach: Paul Johnson (10th year, 70-48 overall)
Only one other time in Paul Johnson's two decades as a head coach did he fail to win six games — 2-10 at Navy in 2002. And like 2003 with Midshipmen when he delivered an eight-win season, Johnson had an immediate rebound from three victories in 2015 to nine in 2016.
Now it's back to chasing his fifth ACC Coastal title and second ACC title.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Matthew Jordan, QB TaQuon Marshall, RB Dedrick Mills, RB Clinton Lynch, WR Ricky Jeune, WR Brad Stewart, OT Andrew Marshall, G Parker Braun
Paul Johnson needs a new quarterback for his triple-option offense after the graduation of Justin Thomas. Matthew Jordan, a 6-foot-2, 208-pound redshirt junior is the most experienced candidate, though he's still only appeared in 14 total games, attempted 18 career passes and rushed 102 times.
Jordan appeared to be the No. 1 quarterback before going down in spring practice with a foot injury. That left Johnson's other option, converted running back TaQuon Marshall to take all the No. 1 snaps and make up ground.
“I feel like this is a great opportunity for me to step out there a little bit more and show what I can do with the (starting offense) and show my ability for the fall,” Marshall said.
Whoever wins the job will have an army of running backs at their disposal, led by sophomore Dedrick Mills (below). He ran for 771 yards (5.1 yards per carry) as a freshman, including a total of 301 against Kentucky and North Carolina.
Clinton Lynch averaged a staggering 11.2 yards per carry as a sophomore, and it was not an anomaly. He averaged nearly 10 yards a year earlier and is also a dangerous receiver (16 catches for 490 yards).
The pair will be aided by a strong offensive line that includes sophomore guard Parker Braun and senior tackle Andrew Marshall. After averaging the the second-lowest number of rushing yards during Johnson's tenure (258), you can expect that number to hover around 300 in 2017.
Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart will be Jordan or Marshall's primary receiving targets. Both averaged better than 17 yards per catch last year.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE KeShun Freeman, DE Antonio Simmons, LB Brant Mitchell, CB Lance Austin, CB Lawrence Austin, CB Step Durham, S Corey Griffin, SA.J. Gray
Eight starters return for defensive coordinator Ted Roof, whose unit yielded 24.5 points per game last year, 39th in the FBS. Roof, a former All-ACC linebacker at Georgia Tech, needs more disruption from his front seven after suffering through long periods of no pass rush.
After the 48-20 loss to North Carolina, Roof simplified the defense and it showed. They gave up 6.7 yards per play in the first six games against Power Five teams and 5.1 in the final four.
“Because I want guys to know the in-depth details of the defense, not just the surface things,” Roof said of opting for the less-is-more strategy.
He's looking at senior ends KeShun Freeman and Antonio Simmons to lead a more aggressive unit that finished 107th with 18 sacks. Only Syracuse (16) had fewer sacks in the ACC.
The secondary, meanwhile, is stacked. They have everything: talent, experience, ball skills, closing speed and more. They're led by sure-tackling safety Corey Griffin, a 6-foot-2, 195-pounder who played very well in his first full season after battling injuries.
He'll be flanked by twin brothers Lance and Lawrence Austin at corner and A.J. Gray at safety. The Austin twins combined for six interceptions, two of which came by Lawrence in the upset victory at Virginia Tech in November.
“It was just an embarrassing feeling, just knowing that the defense didn’t help out the offense last week," Lawrence Austin said of bouncing back from the North Carolina game to win at Virginia Tech. "We put on a horrible showing. It just drove a fire inside ourselves. Mostly, we just wanted to help the offense out as much as we could.”
Notable Player Losses
QB Justin Thomas, RB Marcus Marshall, DE Patrick Gamble
The biggest loss is longtime starting quarterback Justin Thomas. One of the best triple-options quarterbacks of all time, Thomas left with 4,748 passing yards and 2,409 rushing yards, while accounting for 40 total touchdowns.
Running back Marcus Marshall was one of five players to transfer in a five-week period after the season. He averaged seven yards per carry over two seasons before taking his talents to James Madison.
Defensively, Patrick Gamble, their only legit pass rusher from a year ago, is gone after accounting for 7.5 of their 18 total sacks.
Notable Player Additions
LB Bruce Jordan-Swilling
You won't see many new faces making plays for Georgia Tech this fall. The one with the best chance for making an immediate impact is true freshman Bruce Jordan-Swilling.
Georgia Tech opens the season against Tennessee on Monday, Sept. 4, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. It will be their first meeting since 1987. Don't overlook Jacksonville State — as Auburn found out two years ago — on a short week, or a trip to rejuvenated UCF a week later.
|Monday, Sept. 4||vs. Tennessee|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Jacksonville State|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||at UCF|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Pittsburgh|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. North Carolina|
|Thursday, Oct. 12||at Miami (FL)|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. Wake Forest|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at Clemson|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at Virginia|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Virginia Tech|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||at Duke|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||vs. Georgia|