September 11, 2007
ATLANTA Eyes have stopped rolling. Cynics no longer snicker.
Georgia Tech's football team played as well as promised in the season's opening weeks, blowing out its first two opponents by a combined 102-17.
But while the Yellow Jackets earned respect by thumping Notre Dame (33-3) in South Bend and quickly dispatching Division I-AA Samford (69-14), legitimate questions remain.
Can quarterback Taylor Bennett improve Tech's passing game without a superstar like Calvin Johnson to throw to? Can the defense skunk a team with a veteran quarterback the way it did two teams with overmatched signal-callers?
If the answers are yes, then defensive tackle Darryl Richard's stated goal of contending for a national championship is realistic.
The Yellow Jackets already have proven strong in three vital areas: defense, the kicking game and the rushing offense.
Tech's defensive starters allowed three points in the first two games. They sacked Notre Dame's quarterbacks nine times and held Samford's offense to one first down.
With eight starters back from last year's stingy unit, the Yellow Jackets were bound to be good. But their play has surprised even Tech coach Chan Gailey.
"I thought (defensive coordinator) Jon Tenuta and his staff did an unbelievable job of preparing our football team to play," Gailey said following the rout of Notre Dame. "They did an outstanding job."
The kicking game was an even bigger given than the defense coming into the season. Punter Durant Brooks earned All-American honors last season, and he averaged 46 yards per boot in the first two games, pinning the opposition inside its own 20-yard line on four of five kicks. Kicker Travis Bell converted six of seven field goals. The lone miss was blocked.
The rushing offense is off to an unprecedented start. Tech rushed for 265 yards against Notre Dame, with the starters playing little more than three quarters. The Jackets rolled up 389 on the ground versus Samford, with the starters playing only one and a half quarters.
Tailback Tashard Choice rushed for 306 yards and four touchdowns in four quarters of the first two games, spurring Heisman Trophy talk for the ACC's reigning rushing champion. And Choice's heir apparent, true freshman Jonathan Dwyer, ran for a touchdown against Notre Dame and rushed for 138 yards and three TDs on nine carries versus Samford.
Choice and Dwyer run behind a veteran group of blockers. Linemen Andrew Gardner, Matt Rhodes, Kevin Tuminello and Nate McManus have at least two seasons of starting experience apiece. So does bruising fullback Mike Cox.
"Having a rushing attack like that, people have to respect it," Bennett said. "Hopefully, that will open up the passing game for us, too."
Bennett has yet to impress the way he did in last January's Gator Bowl. He seemed out of synch at Notre Dame, completing just 11 of 23 passes. And while he was sharp against Samford, hitting on eight of nine attempts, many of his completions came on swing passes and screens.
But Bennett avoided mistakes, and he completed most of those short throws with touch and accuracy. He's yet to throw an interception, and has been sacked only once. And the blowouts allowed coordinator John Bond to keep much of his passing game a secret.
"We haven't done a whole lot," Bond said. "Obviously, we need to be clicking on all cylinders going forward."
If the season's opening weeks were any indication, Tech's toughest ACC challenges will come before the end of September. The Yellow Jackets face Boston College and Clemson before the month is out. The two heavyweights on the Jackets' post-September schedule, Miami and Virginia Tech, struggled early, and Georgia Tech beat both of those teams a year ago.
The Sept. 15 game against Boston College could be an ACC championship preview. The Yellow Jackets and Eagles appear to be the league's most complete teams, and BC quarterback Matt Ryan will challenge Tech's defensive weakness, the cornerbacks.
The game is in Atlanta, however, just like the Clemson showdown.
"It's hard to overlook (the schedule set-up)," Cox said. "You look at the teams, and you know you have that much better of a chance of going where you want to go and doing the things we want to do."
I-AA OPPONENTS WILL CONTINUE
Georgia Tech played Samford, a Division I-AA program, for the third time in four years on Sept. 8. The Bulldogs won't return to Atlanta in the foreseeable future, but some of their I-AA brethren will.
Jacksonville State will visit in the next two seasons, and South Carolina State is on the 2010 schedule. Georgia Southern likely will be on the 2014 slate, and Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich said the school has approached other I-AA programs, including Chattanooga, Wofford, Furman, Elon and Western Carolina, about games.
The NCAA's decision two years ago to add a permanent 12th game to Division I-A teams' schedules paved the way for more I-A versus I-AA games. The ruling included a provision to allow teams to count wins over I-AA teams toward bowl eligibility every year. Prior to the rule change, teams could count I-AA wins only once every four years.
"It's not so much that they've added a game as you have to go out and add an opponent that's willing to play at your place," Radakovich said. "We play a strong schedule already, so for us and a lot of others like us, it was just a matter of scheduling a I-AA opponent more often."
Tech will continue to schedule aggressively for its other non-conference games. The Yellow Jackets play in-state rival Georgia every year anyway, and they have several other games against SEC teams. Alabama, Mississippi, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are scheduled for the coming years.
Tech also has played other traditional non-conference powerhouses, including Notre Dame, Auburn and Brigham Young, in recent years.
ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT: RARE PROFIT
The Georgia Tech Athletic Association, which operates the school's athletic programs, turned a profit in the recently completed fiscal year for the first time this century.
Revenues outpaced expenditures by approximately $800,000 in 2006-07. The GTAA had lost in excess of $4 million in each of the previous two years.
The financial success can be attributed in part to fund-raising changes initiated by Radakovich, who succeeded Dave Braine as athletic director in March 2006. Radakovich began a seat-licensing program for football risky in a stadium that rarely sells out and basketball games this year.
While the vocal outcry was loud, the financial response has been positive. The program had raised close to $5 million as of the start of football season.
"They had to make a decision on whether they want to support the football program," Radakovich said of Tech's season-ticket holders. "We've been gratified that a lot of folks have said, OK, yeah, I like this product. I like my football seats. If this is the cost of getting into the game, than this is what I want to do.'"