CHARLOTTE, N.C. – If only Paul Johnson’s teams were as defensive as their coach, Georgia Tech would be unbeaten.
This was made clear again here early in the ACC Football Kickoff proceedings, when a young scribe approached Johnson with the presumption that two well-known teams from the other side of the conference standings stand above the rest, Yellow Jackets included.
The question wasn’t fully formed before Johnson stepped in to bat it down. “FSU and Clemson have created a bit of distance. . .”
“Really?” Johnson leapt. “We’re 5-4 against Clemson and 3-2 against Florida State. What distance is that?”
The questioner regrouped: “As far as postseason success. . .”
“We won the Orange Bowl last year (concluding the 2014 season),” Johnson said preemptively. “They’ve been in the national championship game and they’ll be preseason ranked, but perception is reality, I guess.”
(An asterisk here: Johnson is really 4-4 vs. Clemson, a 2009 ACC Championship Game victory over the Tigers having been vacated due to NCAA sanctions).
A much older scribe, hiding his incredulity successfully, I think, eventually asked Johnson if in his eyes he really thought Tech was on par with the likes of a team just coming off an appearance in the College Football Playoff Championship game (Clemson) and another (FSU) just a couple of years removed from winning the thing?
“Probably not right now. Naturally that’s the perception with the year we had last year (finishing 3-9),” he said. Johnson could point to as recently as 2014 when they all did finish the season pretty much on par – FSU ranked fifth, Tech ranked eighth and Clemson ranked 15th.
But, of course, there are deeper differences. A quick comparison between the three programs under their current coaches, just in case there is any residual confusion:
Tech under Johnson: eight seasons, .576 in ACC, .581 overall, three times ranked at season’s end, once in top 10.
Clemson under Dabo Swinney: seven-plus seasons, .766 in ACC, .735 overall, two-time ACC champion, six times ranked at season’s end, twice in the top 10.
FSU under Jimbo Fisher: six seasons, .827 in ACC, .829 overall, three-time ACC champion, six times ranked at season’s end, three times in the top 10.
No, Tech is not the equal of those two. And water is wet and the sun is hot.
But at least Johnson is in there making the pitch for his program.
And, really, Tech people should take heart in the fact that the coach is in this kind of mood (after the 3-9 of last season, “It hasn’t been real comfortable around me,” Johnson said). It is when things get uncomfortable that Johnson seems to do some of his best work.
While, yes, everyone is looking at the likes of Clemson and FSU this season, Johnson will contend that these Jackets are positioned to be much better than the lowered expectations placed upon them.
“I think so. We’ll see,” he said. “We still have to play the games. But I think they have a chance to be better than people think.”
Just having a team not ridiculously crippled by injury would be a great step in that direction.
Another, obviously, involves spitting in the face of reality. Johnson has been working hard on the defiance part of the plan.