Friday April 3rd, 2015

ATLANTA—The window of Paul Johnson’s office at Georgia Tech overlooks the north end zone of Bobby Dodd Stadium. From Johnson’s desk, the coach can see thousands of the stadium’s seats baking in the sun. The view often reminds him of another coach’s wise words, advice Johnson took to heart during the 2014 season.

“[Former Texas A&M and Alabama] coach Gene Stallings had a great line one time,” Johnson says. “He said, ‘If you listen to those people in the stands, you’ll be sitting with them.’”

Plenty of people in the stands questioned the program’s direction under Johnson entering 2014. The Yellow Jackets responded with one of their most successful seasons ever, complete with an ACC Coastal championship. Georgia Tech beat two top-10 SEC teams, came within a field goal of a conference title and won its first Orange Bowl in 63 years.

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The rest of the ACC now knows what the Yellow Jackets can do. The question is whether they can build on that success. Was last season a sign of things to come? Or merely an anomaly?

“When you think about it, it’s like, how much better can it get?” receiver Michael Summers says. “But at the same time, when you’re playing, you’re just thinking, ‘I know there is better.’ That’s making the playoff, which is what we want.”

Playoff aspirations seemed like pipe dreams heading into 2014. Tech hadn’t won double-digit games since ‘09—the year of its last ACC title—and Johnson was a target for criticism. One fan’s obituary even called for the coach’s firing.

But the Yellow Jackets rebounded to win 11 games for just the fifth time in school history, capping the year with a 49-34 victory over No. 7 Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. They won six of their final seven games and three of their last four against top-20 opponents.

Georgia Tech set a program record with 342.1 rushing yards per game, and its 6.06 yards per carry ranked sixth nationally. Johnson said the offense was likely the best in his seven years with the program. “If we got up on you a couple of scores, it was hard to catch up because we didn’t miss our turn much,” he says.

As spring practices began two weeks ago, that offense began its search for new faces to step up. First team All-ACC guard Shaq Mason is gone, as are Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins, the team’s top three running backs. The cupboard isn’t completely empty, however, as four starting offensive linemen return in Trey Braun, Freddie Burden, Bryan Chamberlain and Errin Joe.

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Quarterback Justin Thomas is perhaps the biggest returning piece to the puzzle. Thomas stepped in for Vad Lee last year and led the team with 1,086 rushing yards (5.7 per carry), the most ever by a Tech quarterback. He also threw for 1,719 yards with 18 touchdowns.

With the departure of the three running backs plus top receivers DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller, Thomas’s second spring as the starter is far different from 2014. Last year “was all about unselfishness,” he says. Finding that same chemistry is the top priority this spring. “Going into last season, with the group of guys we had, they’d already been in the system for four or five years,” Thomas says. “They knew what they were doing. This year is built for—I wouldn’t say coaching, but getting the guys together and just making sure everybody’s on the same page.”

The second priority is keeping Thomas healthy, and the Yellow Jackets aren’t taking any chances. He is the first Johnson-coached quarterback to wear a non-contact jersey in spring practices.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Johnson said this spring doesn’t feel any different from the last, but the reality is, it is different. For the first time since 2010 Georgia Tech will enter the season with high expectations. Barring injury, anything less than a shot at the ACC title and a New Year’s bowl will be a disappointment. After all, this team just won 11 games and plays in the very winnable Coastal division. Duke, the only other Coastal foe to win more than four ACC games in ‘14, loses five starters on both sides of the ball. If the Jackets fall into the middle of the pack, the critics in the stands will return.

Johnson says Virginia Tech could be an obstacle and sees the division as a two-team race. “To me, the league goes through Blacksburg or Atlanta, in our division,” he says. “It has every year but one [since I’ve been here]. I don’t see it changing.”

The Yellow Jackets are the divisional favorites, but they still reside in what the public perceives as the second tier of the ACC. Atlantic division foes Clemson and Florida State have won the last four conference championships. Until Georgia Tech threatens that reign, it will remain the little brother in the league. The tide may be turning, however, as the Jackets beat the Tigers and lost to the Seminoles by just two points in 2014. Georgia Tech will get another shot at both Clemson (Oct. 10) and Florida State (Oct. 24) this fall.

The Yellow Jackets’ recent success hasn’t just come against the ACC. Last season they notched two wins over SEC teams, escaping rival Georgia in overtime before running past Mississippi State in the bowl game. As Johnson celebrated the bowl win on national television, he told ESPN’s Maria Taylor, "For at least a week or two, we don't have to hear about the SEC."

Johnson is no stranger to pro-SEC chatter. Atlanta is the de facto heart of the conference, as the league plays its title game in the Georgia Dome, only three miles from Tech’s campus. Johnson still feels like he is fighting an uphill battle for his program’s perception. It’s easy to see why SEC wins can taste a little sweeter.

“There’s always pride,” Johnson says. “We’re stuck in the middle of it, and truthfully, you get tired of hearing about it. It’s a fixed game. You watch the polls this year, in preseason they’ll have 10 teams ranked again. I saw where one of the teams that is ranked in the preseason top 20, we’ve won more SEC games than they have. And we’re in the other league. And then what happens is you get them ranked in the top 10, when they beat each other, they don’t ever fall out.”

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Johnson is likely referring to 2015 SEC dark horse Arkansas, who equaled the Yellow Jackets’ ’14 win total against SEC teams with two, albeit with six more chances.

Of course, the continuation of Georgia Tech’s role as an SEC killer comes secondary to winning an ACC title. But this roster has its focus beyond a berth in the league title game in Charlotte. Its players use the word playoff without irony, as if Georgia Tech deserves a permanent spot among college football’s elite. A New Year’s bowl isn’t enough for this group. The Jackets say last season was only a prelude for greater success.

“We don’t expect anything but the best,” Thomas says. “Coming off a season like that, we can’t rely on last year’s season because we can’t do anything about it now. It’s a new team. We’re 0-0. But we know what the expectations are.”

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