2006 Season Preview (Game 12): Georgia Tech

Football season begins in earnest tomorrow and I still have one preview left to publish. I'm just getting it in under the wire, but, here now, I offer my twelfth and final forecast of the Red and Black's regular season opponents.

For those of you who may have missed some or all of the preceding 11, I also broke down the Bulldogs' games against Western Kentucky, South Carolina, U.A.B., Colorado, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Florida, Kentucky, and Auburn.

(Image from Amazon.com.)

The Game

Georgia v. Georgia Tech
Sanford Stadium
Saturday, November 25

The Opponent

Since 1941, the Yellow Jackets have been the final opponent in the Bulldogs' regular season schedule in all but two seasons, so no one who bleeds red and black is unfamiliar with Georgia Tech. Dawg Sports readers consider the Golden Tornado Georgia's second-biggest rival and the Red and Black's in-state foe generates strong emotions in Bulldog Nation.

The game is being played in Athens, but that hardly seems to matter; since 1960, Georgia is 16-7 against the Yellow Jackets at historic Grant Field and 16-7 against the Ramblin' Wreck between the hedges. (Say . . . maybe we do have home field advantage in Atlanta!)

A Brief History of the Georgia Institute of Technology

In 1885, a century after the University of Georgia was chartered, what was then known as the Georgia School of Technology was founded.

I hope my regular readers with delicate sensibilities will forgive me for using a four-letter word at my site.

The institution came to be referred to as the North Avenue Trade School because it was intended that students would receive a more "hands on" education than that offered at such theory-based colleges as M.I.T. Accordingly, when the school opened in 1888, there were two buildings on campus: one contained administrative offices and classrooms; the other, the Shop Building, housed a pair of foundries and blacksmith, machine, and metal shops.

Today, Georgia Tech consists of six colleges offering degrees in engineering, architecture, computing, and the sciences. While we in Bulldog Nation like to joke that the urban campus is located between a highway and a housing project, the latter was torn down to make room for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, leaving the Varsity as the most recognizable landmark located near the Institute.

A Brief History of Yellow Jacket Football

Georgia Tech fielded its first football team in 1892 but did not claim its first gridiron victory until 1893, when the Ramblin' Wreck defeated the Red and Black in Athens by a final margin of 28-6, thanks to the efforts of the Yellow Jackets' ringer, U.S. Army captain, Indian fighter, and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Leonard Wood.

It was not until 1904 that the Golden Tornado hired its first football coach, but, having taken their time, they got it right: John Heisman guided the team at The Flats for 16 seasons, producing undefeated ledgers in 1905, 1915, 1916, and 1917. In 1920, Coach Heisman was succeeded by Bill Alexander, who spent a quarter-century on the sideline at historic Grant Field, going undefeated in conference play seven times and posting a 10-0 record in 1928.

The Yellow Jackets already had wins in the Orange, Rose, and Sugar Bowls by the time Bobby Dodd took over the reins in 1945, but the Institute's third head football coach would become its most legendary. Coach Dodd was 165-64-8 in 22 seasons, guiding the Yellow Jackets to an eight-game winning streak over Georgia and a 31-game unbeaten streak against all comers from 1950 to 1953, winning one Cotton, two Gator, one Oil, two Orange, and three Sugar Bowls, and engineering Georgia Tech's departure from the S.E.C. after the 1963 season.

We all know for whom Bobby Dodd Stadium was named, but which one of these guys was the namesake of historic Grant Field? (Photograph of Lou Grant from T.V. Guide.)

When Coach Dodd retired following the 1966 campaign, the Ramblin' Wreck had been playing football for 75 years and had been coached by only three men. In the subsequent 39 years, the Yellow Jackets have been coached by eight . . . and that's not even counting Mac McWhorter's one-game stint in the 2001 Seattle Bowl.

Most of Georgia Tech's head football coaches in the era in which Bobby Dodd has been the name on the stadium rather than the man on the sideline have defined mediocrity . . . or worse. From the year before the year I was born to the year I graduated from high school, the Golden Tornado produced records of 27-27 under Bud Carson, 12-10-1 under Bill Fulcher, 34-31-2 under Pepper Rodgers, and 31-43-4 under sanctimonious prisspot Bill Curry.

The Ramblin' Wreck returned to glory under Bobby Ross, who opened his career at The Flats with a 5-20 record before going on a 26-6-1 run that included an 11-0-1 campaign in 1990. The resurgence was short-lived, however, as Bill Lewis took over the program in 1992 and produced an 11-19 ledger in two and a half seasons at the helm.

George O'Leary produced what appeared at first to be a renascence of Georgia Tech football, although subsequent N.C.A.A. sanctions tarnished a 52-33 run during which Coach O'Leary's teams won more than eight games twice in seven full seasons and shared a conference title in a year in which the Yellow Jackets lost to the other co-champion by a 34-7 margin.

Since Coach Dodd's retirement, Georgia Tech has posted an 11-28 record against Georgia. Despite the animosity between the Peach State's two Division I-A programs, there are extraordinary circumstances under which a Georgia man can root for Georgia Tech, for reasons having to do with regional pride.

Could any self-respecting Southerner really root for a team whose fans referred to this man as "a villain" whose "unforgivable mistake" was siding "with the bad guys"?

Returning Starters

Nine starters are back on offense for the Golden Tornado. Fortunately for Georgia Tech, five linemen return, as does standout wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Unfortunately for the Yellow Jackets, quarterback Reggie Ball also is among the returning first-team players for the Ramblin' Wreck.

The Georgia Tech defense features five returning starters, including two linemen and a pair of linebackers, one of whom is KaMichael Hall, a two-year starter on the strong side who is on the Butkus Award preseason watch list. What raises a red flag for the Yellow Jackets is the fact that cornerback Kenny Scott is the lone returning first-teamer in the secondary.

Coaching

Chan Gailey, whose hiring was considered something of a coup for the Institute at the time it was announced, has been criticized for the consistent mediocrity of his won-lost records: 7-6 in 2002, 7-6 in 2003, 7-5 in 2004, and 7-5 in 2005.

I believe that Coach Gailey, who won a national championship at Troy State and took a pair of fading Dallas Cowboys teams to the N.F.L. playoffs, gets a bit of a bad rap in this regard.

Granted, he has not been able to duplicate the success Coach O'Leary enjoyed at The Flats from 1998 to 2000, when the Yellow Jackets went 27-9 and finished tied for first or second place in the A.C.C. while their resume-forging head coach fielded academically-ineligible players and profited from heinously bad officiating in two victories over Georgia.

Deny any part of that, George. I dare you. I double-'Dawg dare you.

However, Coach Gailey does not face the same field Coach O'Leary faced. In Coach O'Leary's day, Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech played in the Big East. In Coach O'Leary's day, Duke was coached by Fred Goldsmith and Carl Franks, Georgia was coached by Jim Donnan, Maryland was coached by Ron Vanderlinden, N.C. State was coached by Mike O'Cain, Wake Forest was coached by Jim Caldwell, and Virginia was coached by George Welsh in the waning days of his long career.

Coach Gailey, by contrast, shares a division with the Hokies and the Hurricanes. He also finds himself coaching against the Blue Devils' Ted Roof, the Bulldogs' Mark Richt, the Cavaliers' Al Groh, the Demon Deacons' Jim Grobe, the Terrapins' Ralph Friedgen, and the Wolfpack's Chuck Amato. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Coach O'Leary would be any more successful than his successor if he had to face Georgia Tech's current quality of opposition without Coach Friedgen directing his offense, with N.C.A.A. regulations being enforced in the registrar's office, and with instant replay reversing blown refs' calls.

Patrick Nix, Georgia Tech's offensive coordinator, will be in charge of the Yellow Jackets' offense this season. (His title would seem to imply that, but this is a new development.) The real star on Coach Gailey's staff, though, is defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, whose consistent success is predicated on physical play and frequent blitzing.

Offense

Fortunately for the Bulldogs, the Ramblin' Wreck offense continues to be directed by Ball, whose placement on the preseason watch list for the 2006 Manning Award completely discredits that honor.

While his physical skills remain impressive, Ball's accuracy as a passer has declined each year of his career and he remains a meltdown waiting to happen; the only question is where and when, not whether.

Will he throw a crucial interception, as he did to cost his team a chance to tie the 2005 Georgia-Georgia Tech game? (In each year of his collegiate career, Ball has thrown one or two more interceptions than touchdown passes.)

Will he forget how to count and throw the ball out of bounds on fourth down, as he did to cost his team any chance at winning the 2004 Georgia-Georgia Tech game? Will he be pulled from the game and made to stand on the sidelines cheering his team as part of his treatment for the "concussion" he suffers when his hand strikes a member of the Bulldogs' team support staff after he loses his temper, as occurred in the 2003 Georgia-Georgia Tech game?

The specific details of Ball's impending implosion are unknown, but you may rest assured in the certitude that a brain cramp at a critical moment will blunt his effectiveness. Barring the most spectacular turnaround by an underachieving quarterback in his final year of eligibility since Jason Campbell, Reggie Ball will challenge Casey Clausen for the title of "Opposing Quarterback Georgia Fans Will Be Most Sad to See Go."

Reggie Ball, like Nuke LaLoosh, combines a million-dollar arm with a ten-cent head . . . only without the million-dollar arm. Also, a dime might be a bit generous. (Photograph from Sports Hollywood.)

Alas, there is more to the Georgia Tech offense than its maturity-challenged signal-caller and what very well might be the third year of his sophomore slump. Ball's backup, Taylor Bennett, gained starting experience against U.Conn. last year and four of the Yellow Jackets' offensive linemen started all 12 games in 2005. Right tackle Brad Honeycutt is the only missing piece from a line that surrendered 10 sacks last season, but Mansfield Wrotto, who has moved back and forth between the offensive and defensive lines, finally has ended up on offense.

Georgia Tech has averaged 4.0 yards per carry on the ground each of the last two years. Lining up at tailback this time will be Tashard Choice, who transferred from Oklahoma after gaining 100 yards on 22 carries as Adrian Peterson's backup. Those aren't bad numbers for a single game, but, since Choice compiled those statistics in a season's worth of work for the Sooners, he transferred back to his hometown to play for the Yellow Jackets. Now that P.J. Daniels is gone, Choice will be the starter beginning tomorrow night.

As always, Johnson is the star of the Ramblin' Wreck's receiving corps, but all three tight ends return and, aside from the departed Demarius Bilbo, most of the rest of the receivers are back. Redshirt freshman Martin Frierson had a good spring and James Johnson seeks to improve upon a 14-catch, two-touchdown performance in 2005. The Golden Tornado has enough talent at receiver that Pat Clark has moved to cornerback.

Bilbo will not be suiting up for the Yellow Jackets this season. Campus sources claim that he was last seen placing a ring on his finger, after which he disappeared entirely. (Photograph from Guardian Newspapers Ltd.)

Defense

Georgia Tech is without leading tackler Gerris Wilkinson, all-A.C.C. defensive end Eric Henderson, and four contributors in the secondary, including Dawan Landry and Reuben Houston. Why, then, do the Yellow Jackets have cause for confidence in their defense?

Defensive tackle Joe Anoai is back to anchor a defensive line that recorded 36 sacks and allowed 3.0 rushing yards per carry last season. The Golden Tornado returns experience at linebacker, particularly in the form of Philip Wheeler.

The defensive backfield clearly takes a step down from its 2005 form and the situation was not helped by the loss of safety Joe Gaston for the year due to a knee injury. However, Scott's return at corner shores up an inexperienced secondary.

Special Teams

Placekicker Travis Bell got off to a good start in 2005, beginning the year by connecting on five straight field goals. Later in the season, however, he missed six in a row, completing the campaign after having been successful on 11 of his 21 three-point attempts. Seven of his 10 misses were on field goal tries of 40 yards' distance or longer. There are valid questions concerning the soundness of his judgment regarding pregame activities, as well.

Punter Ben Arndt will be succeeded by Durant Brooks, who came to the Institute by way of the Georgia Military Academy.

If this man had signed Scott Sisson, the early 1990s would have seen Florida State winning two national titles and Georgia Tech missing postseason play every single year. (Photograph from E.S.P.N.)

Dawg Food

No preview would be complete without a recommendation regarding the pregame meal, which must feature fare connected to the Bulldogs' upcoming opponent, so as to enable the loyal Georgia fan to partake in that good luck ritual known as feasting on the flesh of the enemy.

What, then, should a good citizen of Bulldog Nation eat on the Saturday after Thanksgiving? Why, the answer should be obvious: Bajoran hasperat, Telaxian gaborsti stew, and Klingon gagh, all washed down with a cold glass of tranya. The recipes to all of these tasty dishes may be found in The Star Trek Cookbook, which I am certain is available at the North Avenue Trade School bookstore.

Georgia Tech . . . winners in the classroom and in the kitchen, baby!

What Worries Me Most

Apart from the fact that Georgia always gets Georgia Tech's best shot, my biggest concern is the unpredictable nature of Ramblin' Wreck football. The Yellow Jackets are a quirky team that performs well in spurts and streaks yet executes poorly according to no discernible pattern.

Last year, the Golden Tornado leapt out to a 3-0 start before losing five of the team's last nine games, including a 1-3 run to close out the campaign. Which Georgia Tech team will show up in Athens? Will it be the one that beat Auburn and Miami on the road or the one that lost to N.C. State at home and to Utah in the Emerald Bowl?

"Georgia Tech football is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get." (Forrest Gump, by the way, was declared academically eligible to compete in intercollegiate athletics by the Georgia Institute of Technology registrar's office in 1999.)

What Will Happen on Saturday

It is a commonplace of conventional wisdom in college football that, when rivals meet, you can "throw out the records." That is true of some series, but this isn't one of them. As demonstrated by Bill Cromartie in Clean Old-Fashioned Hate, the team that comes into this game with the better record wins around four-fifths of the time.

What often happens, though, is that the team with the worse record gives the team with the better record a real run for its money. The last 15 series meetings have produced eight contests which were settled by single-digit margins. Due to the emotional intensity of the rivalry, the winning team typically leaves the field knowing it has been in a fight, but, in the end, the team that was expected to win going in is the team that returns home victorious.

Which team will win this game? Check the records when we get to Thanksgiving and, most likely, you'll have your answer.

Go 'Dawgs!

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