Georgia Tech (6-6) vs. Tulsa (8-4)
Jan. 3, noon, ESPN
Gailey's Fourth-Place ACC Tie A Pleasant Surprise, But So-So Results Won't Be Enough In Long Run December 15, 2003 ATLANTA That Georgia Tech spent much of December in preparation for a seventh consecutive bowl game should be validation enough that the 2003 season was a success. After all, the Yellow Jackets were picked to finish eighth in the conference, and at least one Atlanta radio personality said the team wouldn't win a game all season. But the fact that Tech earned a trip to the Humanitarian Bowl, instead of one of the more attractive destinations within its grasp during the last four weeks of the season, left room for doubts about exactly how good a season the Yellow Jackets had. How bright is the football future on The Flats? In the post-expansion ACC, that's anybody's guess.
The Tech coaches and players, whose preseason optimism in August proved more accurate than most media projections, are optimistic again. But the current staff must begin to recruit better and add more productive players to complement a solid nucleus, or next December might not be spent on the practice field.
Where you ended up is higher than where you started, Tech coach Chan Gailey said, but the way we got there is highly unusual to me.
Indeed, it would have been impossible for anyone to write this script. Gailey's first campaign in Atlanta ended with a dud, as the Yellow Jackets were clobbered by rival Georgia to end the regular season and then lost to a depleted Fresno State team in the Silicon Valley Football Classic. Then 10 players failed out of school, including the team's best offensive weapon in tailback Tony Hollings. Critics howled and expectations plummeted.
Gailey himself seemed uncomfortable with the returning team's chances in August, when he surprisingly benched incumbent quarterback A.J. Suggs and moved would-be starter Damarius Bilbo to wide receiver in favor of little-known true freshman Reggie Ball. The move proved to be a signature moment, for Gailey and the Georgia Tech program.
In the end, Ball and the team experienced the highest of highs and some very low points through an up-and-down season. Through four games, the Yellow Jackets were 1-3, with a surprising upset of Auburn and a near-upset against Florida State sandwiched between disappointing efforts against Brigham Young and Clemson.
If I said I had no doubts, I'd be lying, Gailey said. I had hopes, and I believed we could be a good team. But how quickly things would happen for this team, I did not know.
Then, suddenly, they did. Tech reeled off four consecutive wins, including impressive efforts against N.C. State and Maryland. In what then ranked as one of the bigger shocks of the college football season, Tech was 5-3, the toast of the city and apparently headed for a sunny bowl game against a big-time opponent.
I'm like everybody else, Gailey said. When we started playing very well, then my expectations went up. It matured a lot faster then I thought.
As quickly as Tech rose, it fell. A blowout loss to Duke ended the winning streak and raised plenty of doubts. The Yellow Jackets did beat North Carolina to get bowl-eligible, but they crashed and burned in their final two games. Ball's many limitations grew increasingly obvious, and the defense wasn't good enough or deep enough to completely shut down most quality opponents. Good-bye, Florida bowls. Hello, Boise in January.
Then maybe we weren't as mature as I thought, Gailey said. We ended up not playing as consistently once we reached that higher level. I thought we'd reached a certain level, but maybe we hadn't. I thought we might take the next step. Obviously, that was too much for this team.
The 2003 Georgia Tech team had stars, as shown by the inclusion of five Yellow Jackets (safety James Butler, tailback P.J. Daniels, linebacker Keyaron Fox, defensive end Eric Henderson, center Hugh Reilly, receiver Jonathan Smith) on the All-ACC teams, but absolutely no depth. Very few second-team players made an impact on the season, and the starters logged an incredible number of minutes.
Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, the highest-paid assistant in the conference, proved he was worth every penny by creating schemes to hide the defense's inadequacies. Tenuta could do only so much with an undersized line and safeties who excelled against the run but struggled in pass coverage. Next year Tenuta will have to mold a defense around three new starters at linebacker, an undersized line and those same safeties. The anticipated returns of Henderson and Butler, both legitimate early candidates for ACC defensive player of the year in 2004, do provide two nice starting points.
At the beginning of the 2003 season, Gailey faced similar problems on offense. He manufactured an attack around Ball's mobility, Daniels' tough running, Smith's playmaking abilities and a rock-solid, experienced line. The five (six counting reliable senior tight end John Paul Foschi) veteran starters up front provided a lot of stability, but when Ball's erratic passes missed open receivers or teams shut down Smith or limited Daniels, the offense bogged down. There were too few options and no real playmakers outside of Ball and Smith.
A highly emotional freshman, Ball sometimes took himself out of games with his intensity. With Smith gone next year, Ball will have even more of the offensive load on his shoulders. He must work on his accuracy, something that haunted the Yellow Jackets especially in the all-important red zone this season.
Tech's staff played the hand it was dealt well, squeezing six victories out of the bunch and motivating it with an us-against-the-world mentality. Senior leadership helped a great deal, but most of the coaches' work came with mirrors and intangibles. Even the best staffs can shuffle the pieces only so often to make them look a certain way. In the end, what the Yellow Jackets need most is an infusion of talent.
Ball is a start, but he and rookie defensive tackle Mansfield Wrotto another starter from day one are the only two Gailey recruits in the starting lineup. Unless Rashaun Grant overtakes Daniels in the backfield or a freshman emerges, Ball will be the lone Gailey recruit starting on offense in 2004.
Defense will be a different story, as all three linebackers could be Gailey recruits, as well as Kenny Scott at cornerback. But whether or not those players can match or approach Ball's productivity is unknown.
This offseason will be the most important in Gailey's tenure as the head coach in Atlanta. Tenuta who surely will be a hot coaching commodity again must be kept around, and the staff must begin to bring in some top-flight recruits.
If Gailey's first season was about maintaining what George O'Leary established, and his second was about putting his own signature on the program, his third must be about producing consistent success. That term always is difficult to define, but it's safe to say another Humanitarian Bowl is not going to qualify.