2011 Season Preview: The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets And The Forward Pass

While the Georgia Tech defense still tries to find its way, the Yellow Jackets' fortunes in 2011 could be determined by ... the forward pass? Even with the Flexbone, you have to force defenses to at least pretend to respect the pass, and Tech couldn't in 2010.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

One of the most entertaining aspects of college football is the simple fact that there are 14,000 ways to win a football game. There are 1,839 different styles of offense, and you can win with any of them if you execute properly. That includes the glorious, glorious flexbone; it just makes you feel good when it's working well, doesn't it? (At least, unless you're rooting against the team running it so well.) From my April profile of Navy:

Navy's underdog strategy of choice, of course, is the good ol' flexbone (mixed with a nice-and-sneaky 3-4 defense, a "misdirection" defense if ever one existed). Paul Johnson figured out how to run it to perfection, and Niumatalolo continued the string of solid play from the Middies when Johnson left to win an ACC title at Georgia Tech. The flexbone is proof that there are a lot of ways to win a college football game, and there is a hefty amount of flexbone goodness on the YouTubes.

Because of the flexbone, Navy has a clear, distinguishable identity, an enjoyable, successful brand of football.

The thought of Paul Johnson taking the Flexbone to Georgia Tech, where you can actually draw a decent amount of talent (not Top 10 recruiting classes, but certainly Top 30-40), was, and remains, an intriguing one. Exactly what happens if you unleash a picture perfect underdog offense and you're not actually altogether outmanned? After three years, we've learned two things: 1) you can win an ACC title with the Flexbone, and 2) you can't win anything if you can't at least pretend to pass the ball. And 3) a little defense helps.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 6-7 | Final F/+ Rk**: 64
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep S.C. State
41-10 W 34.1 - 26.3 W
11-Sep at Kansas 25-28 L 21.6 - 35.0 L
18-Sep at North Carolina 30-24 W 39.6 - 35.4 W
25-Sep N.C. State 28-45 L 26.6 - 37.7 L
2-Oct at Wake Forest 24-20 W 16.5 - 19.2 L
9-Oct Virginia 33-21 W 33.4 - 32.6 W
16-Oct Middle Tennessee 42-14 W 38.0 - 25.0 W
23-Oct at Clemson 13-27 L 25.9 - 36.1 L
4-Nov at Virginia Tech 21-28 L 34.0 - 30.9 W
13-Nov Miami 10-35 L 26.6 - 37.5 L
20-Nov Duke 30-20 W 24.0 - 32.7 L
27-Nov at Georgia 34-42 L 34.9 - 37.2 L
27-Dec vs Air Force 7-14 L 21.0 - 7.4 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 26.0 71 25.2 57
Adj. Points Per Game 28.9 47 30.2 81

Georgia Tech's iffy 2010 season gave Paul Johnson his first taste of true negativity in a while. After winning the ACC and appearing in the Orange Bowl to begin the calendar year, the Yellow Jackets lost Demaryius Thomas, switched their defense up, and tumbled. They were a 6-7 team that played like a 6-7 team, following up good performances with semi-lousy ones and giving up too many points to take pressure off of an offense that couldn't throw the ball.

Despite his limitations (and his ability to throw a football was nothing if not a limitation), quarterback Josh Nesbitt had still led Georgia Tech to a 5-3 record when he got hurt in a tight loss at Virginia Tech. Tevin Washington took over and oversaw a slight drop-off. Tech went 1-3 with Washington, primarily because the defense was horrifying until the bowl game (last five regular season games: 34.9 Adj. PPG allowed; record: an unsurprising 1-4 in that span), but in all, the offense still did not click as much. Washington had a slightly less terrible completion percentage, but the running game suffered a bit.

Georgia Tech w/Josh Nesbitt: 29.5 Adj. PPG
Georgia Tech w/Tevin Washington (not counting Virginia Tech): 26.6 Adj. PPG

Nesbitt is gone, and Washington is in the midst of fighting it out with some youngsters for the starting job, but again, the offense wasn't really the problem here. It wasn't as good as it was in 2009, but aside from the bowl game, if Tech lost, it was probably the defense's fault. We'll see if they deliver a bit more promise on that side of the ball in their second year with defensive coordinator Al Groh's 3-4 scheme.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 48 38 60
RUSHING 34 28 43 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 104 119 88 23
Standard Downs 46 20 68 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 80 102 61 95
Redzone 95 65 105
Q1 Rk 42 1st Down Rk 65
Q2 Rk 91 2nd Down Rk 38
Q3 Rk 41 3rd Down Rk 62
Q4 Rk 33

You have to hand it to offenses like the Flexbone: even when they're not very good, they know who they are. With Johnson, Georgia Tech is going to run, run, run and run; they're going to play at a high pace (not Oregon-high, but high), they're going to pound away with that option, and occasionally they're going to go deep.

When Demaryius Thomas was wearing the white and old gold (instead of the orange and blue of the Denver Broncos), this offense was incredibly effective. Josh Nesbitt may not have been an even slightly accurate passer, but with him throwing rainbows to Thomas, Tech's offense clicked. In 2009, the Yellow Jackets ranked fourth in Passing PPP+ (and just 66th in Passing Success Rate+). Thomas was targeted with 81 of the team's 168 pass attempts (a 48.2% target rate; in comparison, 2010's highest target rate came from Toledo's Eric Page at just 40.0%), catching 46 for an absurd 1,154 yards (25.1 per catch, 57% catch rate). Tech still didn't pass much, but when they did, it worked, and it made Johnson's offense unstoppable for teams not named Miami or Iowa.

In 2010, however ... not so much. Thomas relocated to Denver and was replaced by two primary receivers, Stephen Hill and Orwin Smith. Hill averaged 19.4 yards per catch over his 15 receptions, but his catch rate was barely half of Thomas': 30.6%. Nesbitt (674 passing yards, 6.4 per pass, 37% completion rate, 7 TD, 4 INT; 783 pre-sack rushing yards, +1.7 Adj. POE) certainly lofted some ducks his way, but that catch rate is still completely unacceptable, and it was very much the primary reason for Tech's Passing PPP+ falling all the way to 88th. The passing game as a whole fell from 14th in Passing S&P+ to 104th. Not surprisingly, as opponents stopped pretending to respect the deep ball, the Tech running game fell from spectacular to just good at the same time.

As odd as it may seem, the pass is going to once again be the key to Georgia Tech's offensive success in 2011. No matter what happens, and no matter who wins the quarterback job in Nesbitt's absence, Tech isn't going to pass much. The Yellow Jackets are what they are. But when they do pass, it has to work occasionally. And if Tevin Washington (417 yards, 6.8 per pass, 41% completion rate, 2 TD, 3 INT; 548 pre-sack rushing yards, -10.3 Adj. POE) can't complete more than 41% of his passes, then look for a youngster to take his job. For whatever it's worth, both Hill and Orson Smith return this fall; but without solid development, that is not necessarily a reason for optimism.

Other tidbits:

  • So who will run the option and occasionally pass for Tech? Washington was by no means horrible, and he'll have a very good shot, but evidently Synjyn Days, a redshirt freshman from Powder Springs, had himself a nice spring. At the Tech spring game, our friends at From The Rumble Seat concluded that "where Josh Nesbitt had power, Synjyn Days has elusiveness. He danced around that field while juking defenders and picking up the necessary yards." Passing ability: yet to be determined.
  • The line played, basically, as intended. The Yellow Jackets ranked 23rd in Adj. Line Yards, anchored by all-conference Sean Bedford and second-team all-conference guard Omoregie Uzzi. Bedford is gone, but Uzzi returns, as do right tackle Phil Smith (12 career starts) and guard Will Jackson (nine starts as a redshirt freshman last year). This is not a unit designed for pass protection, but most of the time that's alright.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 85 90 86
RUSHING 76 74 79 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 95 97 91 77
Standard Downs 82 79 86 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 75 67 80 110
Redzone 66 86 60
Q1 Rk 88 1st Down Rk 88
Q2 Rk 65 2nd Down Rk 106
Q3 Rk 101 3rd Down Rk 59
Q4 Rk 72

We've spent a lot of time in this preview series discussing teams' transitions from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4. Texas A&M and Notre Dame handled it well, Houston struggled, etc. For Georgia Tech, not much changed in their first year with Al Groh running the 3-4. They improved from bad (89th in Def. F/+ in 2009) to ... slightly less bad (77th). They were mediocre against the run, and a poor pass rush led to passing numbers in the 25th percentile or worse. As much as they missed Demaryius Thomas on offense last year, they missed defensive end Derrick Morgan (now a Tennessee Titan) just as much.

For what it's worth, all three of Tech's primary contributors on a thin line return -- ends Jason Peters (38.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks) and Izaan Cross (31.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU) and tackle Logan Walls (12.5 tackles). As I've mentioned before, a lineman's primary goal in the 3-4 is to stand up blockers and clear paths for linebackers, so you shouldn't expect to see much in terms of play-maker stats from 3-4 linemen. Still ... a combined 11.5 tackles for loss, less than one per game, from your starters? You still need to see more than that. If some of Tech's recently highly-touted youngsters -- redshirt freshmen ends Denzel McCoy or Anthony Williams, sophomore end Emmanuel Dieke -- that would help significantly.

The line could be experienced enough to become less of a liability this fall, but even if they're doing their job better, they need some linebackers to take advantage. Three of Tech's top six tacklers at the LB position must be replaced; Steven Sylvester (44.5 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF) took to the four-man linebacker unit rather well, and Julian Burnett (65.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) was the requisite tackling machine (and nothing more), but they'll need help, perhaps from sophomore Jeremiah Attaochu (20.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks), redshirt freshman Quayshawn Nealy, or either of the incoming stars from the 2011 recruiting class, Jabari Hunt-Days or Tremayne McNair.

Other tidbits:

  • Though the linebacking corps might struggle with depth, the secondary almost certainly will. Only two of the top six defensive backs from last year return: free safety Isaiah Johnson (37.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT) and corner Rod Sweeting (32.5 tackles, 1 INT, 7 PBU). The losses of safeties Mario Edwards and Dominique Reese (combined: 108.0 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks, 11 PBU) and corners Jerrard Tarrant and Mario Butler (combined: 85.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 4 FF, 4 FR, 9 PBU) both hurts and severely depletes Georgia Tech's supply of Marios.
  • Last year was the first time Al Groh oversaw a defense that ranked worse than 50th in Def. F/+. Virginia's defenses were consistently solid when Groh was head coach in Charlottesville, but improvement could be a slow go in Atlanta, especially considering how experienced last year's Tech defense was, and how little it improved.

Georgia Tech's 2010 Season Set to Music

For obvious reasons.

"Angels on a Passing Train," by Marah
"Brownblue's Passing," by The Uglysuit
"Don't Pass Me By," by The Beatles
"Pass It On," by Bob Marley & The Wailers
"Pass the 40," by Black Sheep
"Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind," by Yo La Tengo
"Pass the Mic," by The Beastie Boys
"Pass the Popcorn," by The Roots
"Passing By," by Zero 7
"Time Passes Slowly," by Bob Dylan

There are no songs on my iPod with the word "Demaryius" involved.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 39
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 38
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -6 / -4
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 11 (6, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.9

Georgia Tech had, basically, average fumbles luck (though they fumbled a ton) and an average YPP margin. Their recent performance basically matches their recent recruiting despite the unique system, and they return an average number of starters. In other words, there is little in these numbers to suggest that any sort of bounce back is certain in 2011. There is potential -- interesting young defensive ends, linebackers and maybe receivers -- but nothing is guaranteed.

Paul Johnson has proven that while there are a million ways to win a football game, there are also a million ways to quickly become stagnant. He will be relying on youth to avoid stagnation, and that's not typically something that works out beautifully. Still, the schedule sets up for a reasonably fast start -- first seven games: Western Carolina, at Middle Tennessee, Kansas, North Carolina, at N.C. State, Maryland, at Virginia. If they have even only slightly improved, then 6-1 is not out of the question; if not, then 3-4 is in play, and Johnson's seat could become rather warm rather quickly. This is a very important season for Tech's long-term viability under Johnson, and some newcomers will decide how the narrative develops.

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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