THE GATOR BOWL:
Ga. Tech (9-4) vs. West Virginia (10-2), Jan. 1, 1 p.m., CBS
By Adam Van Brimmer
Morris News Service
December 21, 2006
ATLANTA A sinkhole opened up and swallowed Georgia Tech's finest football season in years.
Losses to Georgia in the regular-season finale and to Wake Forest in the ACC championship game negated much of the excitement generated by the team's 9-2 start. While Yellow Jacket fans stand on crater's rim and bemoan the finish, the swoon's lasting effects likely won't be known for a while.
What else did the sinkhole claim? Confidence? Recruits? The nation's best wide receiver, who happens to be a junior? Faith in the future?
Even with the two late losses, the 2006 season stands as the program's best since 1998. The Yellow Jackets won nine games, posted the best regular-season record in ACC play, won the Coastal Division title and earned a berth in a New Year's Day game, the Gator Bowl.
"These guys deserve to go to a good bowl game," coach Chan Gailey said.
The Gator Bowl matchup with 13th-ranked West Virginia gives Tech a chance at redemption. Beating a marquee team on network television in a New Year's Day game likely would earn the Yellow Jackets a spot in the final Associated Press poll, something they haven't accomplished since 2000.
It also would cement what senior defensive tackle Joe Anoai calls "a legacy" for future teams. Several Tech veterans at key positions quarterback, offensive tackle, defensive tackle, outside linebacker and cornerback will exhaust their eligibility in the Gator Bowl. Many of them acknowledge the talent of their understudies, though, and have talked all season about setting a higher example of success.
The senior class exorcised all but one of the program's demons this season.
The Jackets avoided the upset losses that plagued them the past three years, even rallying for victories against Maryland, Miami and N.C. State.
They avenged a 51-7 loss to Virginia Tech in 2005 with a convincing 38-27 win in Blacksburg this September.
They finished the league schedule with three straight victories, to ensure the Coastal Division title.
Despite all the success, one familiar failure will mark the Georgia Tech seniors and the program: They didn't beat Georgia.
The Ramblin' Wreck dropped its sixth straight game to its rival two days after Thanksgiving. For many Tech fans, that loss ruined the season, probably because it reminded them of so many other shortfalls in recent years.
A poor outing by senior quarterback Reggie Ball spoiled a stellar defensive effort. The four-year starter showed none of the poise and skill he'd displayed all season, against a team that gradually became his nemesis and nightmare.
He completed 27 percent of his passes and committed three turnovers against the Bulldogs. He handed Georgia one of its two touchdowns with a fumble that was returned for a score in the third quarter.
Tech's defense, which shut out the Bulldogs for three and a half quarters, also faltered at the worst possible time. The Dawgs drove 64 yards for the winning touchdown in the game's closing minutes.
The ACC championship game played out much the same way. Ball struggled again, completing 31 percent of his throws and tossing two interceptions. The defense, stellar for more than three quarters, allowed Wake Forest to drive for two fourth-quarter field goals, the second giving the Demon Deacons a 9-6 win.
From the bottom of the sinkhole escaped plenty of frustration.
"It gets a little redundant to keep doing the same thing, to keep playing hard and playing hard and still coming up short," senior linebacker KaMichael Hall said. "It defeats the purpose of going out there almost. It's very irritating. You give everything you have every play and every down, and you lose."
The flop's impacting the program's potentially bright future would be an even greater loss. Tech made strides in several areas to improve from middling team to title contender this season, starting with the offense.
Coordinator Patrick Nix revamped Tech's scheme in the offseason. He integrated Gailey's philosophies of ball control and field position into a system that spread defenses out and looked for big plays in certain situations.
With a veteran quarterback skilled as a runner, a workhorse tailback in Tashard Choice, Calvin Johnson at wide receiver, and a reliable, experienced line, the new scheme produced. Tech's offense ranked among the ACC's best during league play, with Ball leading the ACC in touchdown passes, Choice in rushing and Johnson in receiving.
Tech scored 30 or more points in four ACC games one more than in the last three seasons combined.
"We did a lot of great things when you look at the ACC games," Nix said. "We gave ourselves a chance to play for the ACC championship. We didn't play as well as we wanted to at the end, but I think we definitely came a long way."
Nix sees plenty of promise in the future. Ball and right tackle Mansfield Wrotto are the only key offensive starters who exhaust their eligibility this season. Taylor Bennett, the heir apparent at quarterback, has spent three years working with Nix.
"Hopefully, Taylor will come in and get it done, and that will change us because of the quarterback position," Nix said. "We'll probably be a little bit more of a true dropback kind of deal, with the routes we have. It depends on personnel to where we go and what we do."
Johnson's decision regarding the NFL undoubtedly will have a heavy impact on the offense. A junior, he can leave early and is projected as a top-five pick. Yet he has maintained throughout his college career that he intends to play four years at Tech, and Bennett is his roommate and among his closest confidants. Johnson has until Jan. 15 to apply for the draft.
Even more important for Tech than keeping Johnson will be holding on to a stellar recruiting class. The Yellow Jackets have received commitments from seven high school players considered among the nation's best at their positions, including Coatesville, Pa., defensive end Derrick Morgan, Marietta, Ga., tailback Jonathan Dwyer, Folkston, Ga., wide receiver D.J. Donley, Gainesville, Ga., offensive lineman Nick Claytor, and two highly regarded quarterbacks.
One of those quarterbacks, Steven Threet, graduated from high school in late December and intends to enroll at Tech in January and take part in spring practice. The class is by far the most highly regarded of Gailey's tenure.
With at least 18 starters returning Johnson will be 19 if he passes on the NFL Tech may be poised to be an ACC title contender again.
That's as long as the sinkhole claimed nothing beyond this season's conference championship.
DT Joe Anoai, QB Reggie Ball, LB KaMichael Hall, TE Michael Matthews, CB Kenny Scott, RT Mansfield Wrotto
TE George Cooper (2005 starter), WR Chris Dunlap, WR Xavier McGuire
2007 Returning Starters^
Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2007 Class
RB Tashard Choice 6-1/205 Sr.
FB Mike Cox 6-1/245 Sr.
WR Calvin Johnson 6-5/235 Sr.
WR James Johnson 6-0/190 Jr.
LT Andrew Gardner 6-6/290 Jr.
LG Matt Rhodes 6-3/280 Sr.
OC Kevin Tuminello 6-4/285 *Sr.
RG Nate McManus 6-3/300 Sr.
DT Darryl Richard 6-4/285 Jr.
DE Adamm Oliver 6-4/265 Sr.
DE Darrell Robertson 6-5/245 Sr.
LB Gary Guyton 6-2/235 Sr.
LB Phillip Wheeler 6-2/225 Sr.
SS Jamal Lewis 6-0/192 Sr.
FS Djay Jones 6-1/200 Sr.
CB Avery Roberson 6-2/200 Sr.
Special Teams (2)
PK Travis Bell 6-0/210 Sr.
P Durant Brooks 6-1/198 Sr.
- has utilized redshirt season
^ six/more 2006 regular-season starts
Other Tested Returnees
QB Taylor Bennett, RB/KR Jamaal Evans, PR Tyler Evans, RB/KR Rashaun Grant, TE Wayne Riles, PR Andrew Smith, WR Greg Smith
CB Pat Clark, LB Sedric Griffin, DE Robert Hall, DE Michael Johnson, DT Vance Walker, CB Jahi Word-Daniels, KO Mohamed Yahiaoui
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 5-3 (3) 7-5 Carquest Bowl (W)
1998 7-1 (1) 10-2 Gator Bowl (W)
1999 5-3 (2) 8-4 Gator Bowl (L)
2000 6-2 (2) 9-3 Peach Bowl (L)
2001 4-4 (4) 8-5 Seattle Bowl (W)
2002 4-4 (5) 7-6 Silicon Valley (L)
2003 4-4 (4) 7-6 Humanitarian Bowl (W)
2004 4-4 (6) 7-5 Champs Bowl (W)
2005 5-3 (3C) 7-5 Emerald Bowl (L)
2006 7-1 (1C) 9-4 Gator Bowl
ACC: 51-29 (.638)
Overall: 79-45 (.637)
Team 2006 Record^
Boston College 9-3 (5-3)
Clemson 8-4 (5-3)
North Carolina 3-9 (2-6)
Virginia Tech 10-2 (6-2)
Georgia 8-4 (4-4)
Samford 3-8 (1-7)
Duke 0-12 (0-8)
Maryland 8-4 (5-3)
Miami 6-6 (3-5)
Virginia 5-7 (4-4)
Notre Dame 10-2
^ regular season only (conference)
NOTE: Finalized dates/times TBA.