Jan. 25, 2017
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
As Georgia Tech’s full football schedule rolled out Wednesday, the 2017 season lay before eyes to produce stock and shock.
The Yellow Jackets have a rock-solid slate with six home games in Bobby Dodd Stadium, another doozy in downtown Atlanta and 10-of-12 opponents having gone to the postseason in 2016.
The beginning and end were already known.
Tech’s season opener against Tennessee in Mercedes-Benz Stadium sports a great vibe already, as the first meeting with the Vols in 30 years promises quite the Labor Day evening treat in one of Atlanta’s two new sports palaces.
“It’s always cool to open up with some competition like Tennessee,” said rising junior wide receiver Brad Stewart. “We’re just eager to get back out there and get double-digit wins.”
Should the Jackets surpass their 9-4 mark of last season, which included winning six of their final seven games in a campaign where they went 3-0 against the SEC, they’ll want to stay busy after the opener versus Tennessee. Just five days later, Tech will open Bobby Dodd against a Jacksonville State squad that finished 10-2 and was ranked among the nation’s top three NCAA Division I FCS teams in 2016, then travels to the land of Disney to play 2016 Cure Bowl participant UCF the next week.
These games were already on the books, so to speak, the same as the regular-season finale at home against Georgia. No need to say anything about that one.
It’s the middle of the schedule sandwich — the ACC run — that prompts new emotion.
Before looking at who’s new to the conference schedule — Wake Forest — there’s the troubling business about the Jackets for the second season in a row drawing a league-high three ACC opponents who will be coming off byes or off weekends in Clemson, Wake and Miami.
That doesn’t feel right, and head coach Paul Johnson surely agrees.
However, Tech’s ACC schedule — vs. Pitt, North Carolina, at Miami, Wake Forest, at Clemson, at Virginia, Virginia Tech and at Duke — looks to have a break or two for the Jackets, sort of.
With consecutive away games just once, the first — at defending ACC and national champion Clemson on Oct. 28 — is the easiest trip of the fall, travel-wise, with Clemson, S.C. being just 120 miles up I-85 from Atlanta.
Oh, and the Tigers won’t have No. 4, Deshaun Watson, at quarterback. That won’t hurt and neither will the loss of a slew of other players to the NFL.
Clemson, though, will be coming off its bye with that much more time to prepare for the Jackets’ nuanced offense, which will not have Justin Thomas at the controls for the first time in four seasons.
Tech’s bye falls on Oct. 7 and they’ll play at Miami on Thursday, Oct. 12. That’s no real advantage for the Jackets; the Hurricanes will be coming off of a bye as well.
And when Tech returns to The Flats to face the Demon Deacons for the first time since a 24-20 win in Winston-Salem in 2010, the Deacs will be riding two full weeks of rest, compared to a week and a day for the Jackets.
Maybe Tech fans can celebrate the fact that 3-of-4 games against the Coastal Division rivals most likely to challenge for a berth in the ACC Championship Game — Pitt, North Carolina and Virginia Tech — will be played in Bobby Dodd Stadium, where the Jackets were 5-2 last season (including a defeat to Clemson).
Going back to the non-conference slate, there should be no complaints about the season opener, which is reminiscent of the 2006 opener in Bobby Dodd against No. 2 Notre Dame and quarterback Brady Quinn.
It was electric on The Flats that day and night.
ESPN’s Gameday set up shop on campus for the first weekend of that season and the game lived up to hype. The Fighting Irish won, 14-10, in a wonderful atmosphere but unranked Tech built from there to win nine of its next 10 games and punched a ticket to the ACC Championship Game against Wake Forest.
Like Notre Dame in ’06, Tennessee is sure to open the 2017 season ranked and, being from the SEC, well, that’s a big deal. The ACC kicked tail in the recently concluded bowl season, none the least of those fetes being Clemson’s last-second win over Alabama in the national championship game.
Who doesn’t love a good ACC vs. SEC chatter battle? Especially among folks in White and Gold, after the Jackets went 3-0 vs. SEC teams in 2016 — beating Vanderbilt at home, winning at Georgia and handling Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl?
“The fans love it,” Stewart said. “It’ll motivate us a little bit more because everyone says the SEC is better than the ACC. But we’re not focused on that.”
Forgive Brad, but that’s not entirely accurate.
The Jackets may say they don’t focus on the SEC-ACC stuff but they know. They know the SEC has been a darling of the media for years and many of them were recruited by SEC schools or wish they had been.
Tennessee, against whom Tech sports a 17-24-2 record that featured a slew of knock-`em-down-drag-`em-out games in the `50s and early `60s when both teams were often ranked under coaches Bobby Dodd and Bowden Wyatt, travels well and has a large fan base in Atlanta.
Truth be told, the Jackets are excited already about that game because the Vols will bring pedigree and part of that is driven by their mother ship — the SEC.
Better to start off with a biggie than, say, Alcorn State, whom the Jackets trounced, 69-6, to open the 2015 season before whipping Tulane, 65-10. The rest of that season didn’t go well.
The second ACC-SEC game in two days to be played in the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which will be home to the Falcons and next year’s College Football Playoff Championship Game on Jan. 8, will be large after Saturday’s Florida State-Alabama matchup. Tech fans have sought this matchup for years.
“I think it’s a lot better,” Stewart explained. “My freshman year, we played Alcorn State, a big win, and got two games like that under our belt and then went to Notre Dame and didn’t know what we were capable of. Last year, Boston College (a last-minute win for the Jackets in Dublin, Ireland) got us going.”