ATLANTA — Paul Johnson has sent mixed messages about the program based 65 miles away. After Georgia Tech lost to Georgia in 2009, he famously said his Jackets had “bigger fish to fry.” On arrival, this same Paul Johnson plastered signs reading “Beat Georgia” all over his practice field.
There can, however, be no mixed message about the importance of Saturday’s game for Johnson. Yes, his first Tech team famously upset the No.-1-in-preseason Bulldogs, but that was in 2008 and the Jackets’ athletic director was the man who’d hired Johnson. Today it’s 2013 and he’s working under a new boss and riding a four-game losing streak to the hated mutts.
In the proud history of Tech football, only one coach has ever lost as many as five consecutive games to Georgia. That man was Chan Gailey, who lost six in a row — and was fired two days after the sixth. Twelve days later, Dan Radakovich hired Johnson. Three hundred fifty-six days after that, Johnson’s team won in Athens.
No one questions that Johnson has been an upgrade: He’s 48-30 and has won an ACC title (at least on the field); Gailey was 44-33 and did not. But if we note that Johnson’s greatest success came in 2008 (9-4) and 2009 (11-3) and was forged in large measure with Gailey holdovers, the plot thickens. Over the past four seasons, Tech under Johnson is 28-23, which is worse than the 30-21 of Gailey’s final four seasons. That 30-21 got Chan canned.
Gailey was fired primarily because he couldn’t beat Georgia even once. (Had his 2007 Jackets upset the Bulldogs on Nov. 24, Radakovich would not have dismissed his coach on Nov. 26. I know this for a fact.) Johnson broke the drought in 2008 but hasn’t won since. The first two losses were hairbreadth things; the past two weren’t close.
The only reasonable conclusion to be reached after last season’s 42-10 thrashing was that the gap had widened to the extent that Tech might never beat Georgia again so long as Mark Richt, who’s 11-1 against Tech, remains in place. But the dynamics changed Saturday night in Athens.
Georgia will play Saturday without quarterback Aaron Murray. Hutson Mason is no slouch — “He’s been ready for two years,” Richt said Saturday — but he will be a career backup making his first collegiate start on the road against a rival that will see this as a chance to strike a blow against the empire.
Without Murray, Tech has a shot.
It has been a long time since Tech beat anyone of consequence. The Jackets’ last victory over a ranked team came against Clemson on Oct. 30, 2011.
They did beat Duke, which has risen to No. 24, but that was in September and the Devils were without their quarterback.
In two games against ranked opponents, the Jackets were beaten by the aggregate score of 100-61. Miami and Clemson stacked 1,102 yards against Ted Roof’s defense, which has been rather good otherwise.
Johnson’s Jackets can hold their own against teams of similar talent and can beat the stuffing out of lesser lights, but against superior manpower they’ve lately had little chance.
If the Jackets can get ahead early and control the clock; if they can remove Todd Gurley from the equation and force Mason to throw; if Tech’s defensive backs can cover Georgia’s receivers better than they did Clemson’s; if they can expose Todd Grantham’s defense the way Auburn did … if that happens, Johnson could notch Victory No. 2 over Enemy No. 1.
And he needs it.
Since 2009, Tech has become what former AD Dave Braine, who said after extending Gailey’s contract in 2005 that the Jackets couldn’t be expected to “win nine or 10 games … consistently,” actually predicted. Braine’s assertion led to an outcry that Tech was embracing mediocrity, but only four times since the 1990 UPI national championship have the Jackets won more than eight games — twice under George O’Leary and in those first two seasons under Johnson.
A Tech coach can get away with going 8-4 if, every so often, one of those eight comes two days after Thanksgiving.
For Paul Johnson in Year 6, there’s no bigger fish than this.