Jan. 27, 2018
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Paul Johnson doesn’t have a lot of practice in bouncing back from losing seasons — he’s only had to do it four times in 21 years as a head coach — but he’s still really good at it.
Johnson’s teams are 25-4, never won fewer than eight games and have reached a bowl in each of his three previous seasons following sub-.500 seasons. The last one came following the nightmarish 2014 season, when the Jackets went 9-4, beat Georgia in Athens then topped Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl in 2015.
He’ll look to do it again in 2018, following last season’s 5-6 season against the seventh-toughest schedule in the country — a season that could have been so much different with a different outcome on one or two plays in at least three of the losses.
“Hopefully we can. I think if you look at the totality of our coaching and my coaching, I was a head coach for 11 years before I came here and we won less than eight games one time,” said Johnson, who will bring a 182-93 record (75-54 at Georgia Tech) into 2018. “The conference has gotten tougher, it’s a tough job and certainly our goal is to try to win every game and to be in the conference championship. But you’ve got to get some breaks, you’ve got to keep people healthy. That’s what we’re shooting for this year.”
Accomplishing what they’re shooting for is a little bit easier now — perhaps a little bit clearer is a better way to put it — knowing what he’s shooting at.
The Yellow Jackets will play a 2018 schedule against opponents that combined for a 92-62 record last season (a .597 winning percentage) in 2017 and includes eight opponents that played in the postseason. It features a pair of primetime games in October — a rare Friday night game, Oct. 5 at Louisville, then a Thursday night affair on Oct. 25, at Virginia Tech.
“I think it’s certainly challenging,” said Johnson. “This (schedule) is kind of back-end loaded in our division. Sometimes we play a lot of division teams early and I think this time, other than Pitt, we’ve got four or five in a row there at the end.”
The Jackets’ conference opponents — at Pittsburgh (Sept. 15), Clemson (Sept. 22), at Louisville, Duke (Oct. 13), at Virginia Tech, at North Carolina (Nov. 3), Miami (Nov. 10), and Virginia (Nov. 17) — combined for a 60-43 record (a .583 winning percentage) and were 33-31 in ACC play (.516) this past season.
Tech is 44-14-2 all-time at Bobby Dodd against Clemson, 29-13-1 vs. Duke, 9-5 against Miami and 16-7 against Virginia, and has had good success at home as of late, winning four-straight against Virginia, having won five of six against Clemson, and 10 of 11 against Duke. Only Miami has been a stumbling block, as Tech has lost three of the last four, but all four teams topped Tech last season on the road.
The road slate also promises to remain especially challenging. The Jackets are 1-4 all-time at Pitt, 4-11-1 at Virginia Tech, and 10-13-3 at UNC. The game against Louisville will be the first between the two schools and while they won’t see 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and two-time Heisman finalist Lamar Jackson, they will face the challenge of playing in Louisville and doing so on a short week.
“We’ve never had (a) Friday (game) before but as long as both teams have the same off-time, then I think it’s doable and fair,” said Johnson of the meeting with the Cardinals.
Fair scheduling has been something of an issue in the past when it came to the matter of teams coming off bye weeks and getting extra time to prepare for the Jackets. This year, that won’t be as big an issue, as only three teams — Bowling Green, Duke and Virginia Tech — come off their bye prior to facing the Jackets and the Hokies don’t have an advantage, as the game is on Thursday night and Tech also has its bye heading into the game.
“I think it matters, but hopefully they got that scheduling rectified,” said Johnson. “I think (Athletic Director) Todd (Stansbury) was able to put forth an amendment that they voted on and hopefully we won’t see those kind of disparities anymore.”
The non-conference portion of the 2018 slate may turn out to be as challenging as the conference part, as Alcorn State, South Florida, Bowling Green and Georgia combined for a .686 winning percentage (32-19) this past season.
Alcorn went 7-5, but 5-2 in the SWAC, and played for the conference championship. Of their five losses, four were one-score games. Tech follows that up by traveling to Tampa, to take on South Florida, which, in the first season under Charlie Strong went 10-2 (6-2 in the American Athletic Conference), and gave undefeated Central Florida all it could handle before falling in a 49-42 shootout. Even Bowling Green, while 2-10 last season, must be taken seriously, as it’s a potential trap game, falling between Clemson and Louisville. Then, of course, there’s “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” to conclude the season.
“(Alcorn) will be a quality opponent. They’ll have a good team. Then we have to go to South Florida, who won 10 games,” he said. “Then, of course, at the end of the year you play Georgia, who’s always got a lot of talent and is usually pretty good.”
He’s certainly not taking anything for granted in Bowling Green.
“We have to play a Bowling Green team that will be better, I’m sure,” he said. “For us, hopefully, what will happen with a new defensive scheme and some new guys, we’re going to get better each week that we play and so we’ll be good enough when we play them to play well enough to get a win. Certainly that’s a game that we need to win on our schedule.”
The final stretch of the schedule sees the always weird game at Virginia Tech (9-4, 5-3) then Miami (10-3, 7-1), with a road trip to Chapel Hill to face a healthier and improved North Carolina (3-9, 1-7) sandwiched in-between.
Having to face Clemson (12-2, 7-1), which has been in the College Football Playoff each of the last three years, and Louisville in Atlantic Division games makes that final stretch inside the Coastal Division more important than ever.
“Our division games become so much more important because when you play the crossover games in the other division, sometimes you can catch a break — although it’s harder to catch a break now because everybody’s better,” he said. “For us, having Clemson every year, they’ve kicked their program into high gear here in the last five to six years and supported it with all kinds of money and resources and those kinds of things. So that’s a challenge. Although we’ve done okay against them overall (Tech is 5-1 in the last six games against the Tigers at Bobby Dodd, 3-1 under Johnson) that’s a challenge so it makes the divisional games that much more important because some of the teams on the crossovers don’t have to play Clemson.
“I think it’s pretty similar to what we’ve had,” he added. “But it’s always challenging. Our league has gotten so much better from the time I got here in 2008 to now, it’s amazing how much better the league has gotten.”