December 13, 2004 As Gailey Wrestles With Offense-Defense Dichotomy, Braine's Comments Paint 2005 As Do-Or-Die Season ATLANTA The stakes have been raised for the 2005 football season in Atlanta.
Georgia Tech athletic director Dave Braine took care of that before the Yellow Jackets even played this year's regular-season finale. In the week leading up to the game with rival Georgia, Braine plainly laid out one of next year's goals: to be ranked in the top 25. After the bizarre loss (more on that later), Braine offered more critiques of his football program.
"Chan (Gailey) and I talked about it. We should be much, much better next year," Braine said. "I expect to be better. He'll tell you he expects to be much better next year. My job is to make this a better program, and one of the criteria we set for every one of our sports is to be in the Top 25."
Talk about pressure. The Yellow Jackets have not been ranked since the final poll of the 2001 season. Gailey became the head coach in Atlanta for the start of the 2002 season.
Braine, long renowned for his patience with Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer during his early struggles with the Hokies, did not rule out making a change before Gailey's contract expires after the 2006 season.
"I would hope we would be able to do that (honor the entire contract)," Braine said. "Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances. But I continue to think we're going to be good."
How good is good enough? Braine's comments seem to suggest that the Yellow Jackets must win at least seven games in 2005 for Gailey to remain as head coach. (In this year's Associated Press poll, only four 7-4 teams were ranked in the pre-bowls Top 25: Florida, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Ohio State. Seven other 7-4 teams, three of them from BCS conferences, were not ranked.) Braine insists he's never mentioned seven wins as a benchmark, and he's certainly never done so to the media, but the fan base nevertheless has seized on a "seven-win mandate" for Gailey next fall.
Gailey refused to comment on what Braine's very public statements will do to his ability to sign quality prospects. The staff has shown an ability to win some recruiting battles, nabbing high-impact freshmen Calvin Johnson and Darryl Richard last year. This season's effort is shaping up to be another solid, if not spectacular, class. Closing the deal, however, likely got harder in the wake of media attention about Gailey's seemingly short leash.
It also could be difficult to attract an offensive coordinator if the Yellow Jackets decide to make a move in that direction. Gailey, however, recently made clear that he anticipates making no coaching changes.
That could be a point of contention in postseason meetings with Braine and with fans who are howling for change in the offense. Braine and Gailey will meet after the Champs Sports Bowl and likely after New Year's Day to discuss the state of the program. It remains to be seen how strongly Braine will push for changes, or if he will at all, and how strongly Gailey might resist.
Since offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien left for Maryland (and a lesser coaching position) after the 2002 season, Gailey basically has run the Tech offense. In 2003, he was the coordinator, although assistants Patrick Nix and Buddy Geis handled the in-week paperwork. This season, Gailey promoted Nix to coordinator, but the head coach continued to call the plays.
After the fiasco in the final minute of the Yellow Jackets' 19-13 loss to Georgia quarterback Reggie Ball apparently lost track of what down it was, then spiked the ball on third down and threw it away on fourth in the final minute the pressure on Gailey to shuffle his offensive staff could be enormous. But Gailey feels a close connection with Nix, whom he considers one of the rising stars on his staff. An excellent recruiter, Nix is not someone Gailey wants to lose.
However, the call for a more experienced offensive coordinator is sure to be loud. And it could come from above Gailey, who insists he makes all the decisions on his staff choices. Gailey could turn over the play-calling duties to Nix, but that likely would do little to stem the on-going criticism of the Tech offense, which ranked 92nd in the nation in total offense and 104th in scoring offense in 2004.
One of the largest problems for the Tech offense was Ball, who regressed from his break-out freshman season and continued his propensity to turn the ball over. Ball threw 17 interceptions, six more than in his freshman season, and completed just 48.6 percent of his passes, down more than three percentage points. This despite the arrival of standout wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who became the ACC rookie of the year.
Disgruntled with Ball, Gailey already has opened the quarterback job for next year. Ball and Taylor Bennett, who redshirted this season, are expected to be the top two contenders. Former quarterback turned wide receiver Damarius Bilbo also could be a candidate. High school quarterback Todd Walker, who was expected to enroll in school early, recently de-committed from Tech and instead will attend Texas Tech.
Gailey's need to win next season, as laid out by Braine, could affect his decision. Can Gailey afford to turn to a freshman quarterback with his job on the line, especially against a schedule that includes road games at Auburn, Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech and a home date with Georgia?
Even with a defense that returns 10 starters, all but two-time All-ACC safety James Butler, the Yellow Jackets will need a better offensive effort in 2005.
There is potential already in place. Tailback P.J. Daniels, who led the ACC in rushing in 2003, suffered through an injury-plagued campaign in 2004. He should return at 100 percent, and in his absence Tech gained additional depth in Chris Woods and Rashaun Grant. Johnson also will return, giving Tech a game-breaking playmaker at wide receiver. Experienced players at guard and center should solidify the interior of the line, though the tackles will be green. Better quarterback play is a must.
The bar has been set high. Seven wins even though Braine has not laid out that exact number, fans believe it and will act accordingly in 2005 will be extremely difficult to achieve. Tech must defeat at least one of the following teams Auburn, Georgia, Miami, Virginia or Virginia Tech and beat everyone else on the schedule.
Clearly, little margin has been left for error.
Georgia Tech Departing Players
FS James Butler, WR Nate Curry, FB Jimmy Dixon, LT Leon Robinson, OC Andy Tidwell-Neal, RT Kyle Wallace, TE Darius Williams
LB Tabugbo Anyansi, LG Brad Brezina (injury), FS Nathan Burton, CB Dennis Davis, DS Andrew Economos, FB Johnathan Jackson, LT Kenton Johnson, QB/WR Mark Logan, WR Levon Thomas, DE Chirod Williams
2005 Returning Starters
Special Teams (2)
Other Tested Returnees
OL Salih Besirevic, QB/WR Damarius Bilbo, TE George Cooper, RB Mike Cox, RB Ajenavi Eziemefe, RB Rashaun Grant, TE Michael Matthews, OC Kevin Tuminello, RB Chris Woods
KO Kyle Belcher, DT Omar Billy, SS Joe Gaston, LB Gary Guyton, CB Jamal Lewis, DE Adamm Oliver, DT Darryl Richard
Projected 2005 Strengths
There is not a better assistant coach in the ACC, and perhaps in the nation, than Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. The guy is dangerous when he lacks proven personnel, as was largely the case with the Yellow Jackets' defense entering 2004, so it will be very interesting to see what he can do next fall (assuming he sticks around) with 10 returning starters and a handful of helpful reserves. Offensively, the Jackets may not be pretty, but they'll have one of the best tailbacks in the conference in Daniels (when healthy) and one of the top receivers in Johnson. The ACC rookie of the year in a landslide, Johnson is a shining example of everything Tech wants in a player: intelligence, athleticism, character and production.
Projected 2005 Questions
Everyone at Tech is proud of the program's run of eight straight bowls, but is Chan Gailey (heading into year four) the guy to lead this team to a postseason destination that's at least a little bit more glamorous than the Seattle (2001), Silicon Valley (2002), Humanitarian (2003) and Champs Sports (2004) bowls? Given that graduation, injuries and other attrition have combined to cripple an already woefully thin offensive line, who in the world is going to block next season? Considering Gailey's ground-based preferences, isn't that a scary question? Halfway through his college career, is anyone really sure that the erratic Ball can be a big winner as an ACC quarterback? Will someone step up to join Daniels and Johnson as playmakers? How long will it be before some of Gailey's mediocre recruiting classes begin to catch up with him?
CHART BY: EDITOR DAVE GLENN