October 11, 2005
ATLANTA - Well, that didn't take long.
It didn't take long for Georgia Tech's promising season to devolve into another mediocre one. It didn't take long for the heat to be turned up again on fourth-year coach Chan Gailey. And it didn't take long for fans to begin wondering if this is all there is for the Yellow Jackets, both this season and in the long run.
Tech's reservoir of good will, earned with an upset of Auburn and a month of Top 25 rankings, vanished as suddenly as it appeared. All it took was two very different losses, a humbling 51-7 blowout at Virginia Tech and a heartbreaking 17-14 home loss to N.C. State, to take the shine off a 3-0 start that had buoyed not only confidence in the program, but the expectations around it.
All of that is gone now. Probably gone, too, is the idea that the Yellow Jackets finally will be able to exceed their recent history of mediocre records and third- (and fourth-) tier bowl appearances. Those things are still well within the grasp of this team, but so too is a potential crash and burn.
What is gone is the opportunity for the break-through season. Even the most optimistic fan must believe that. The losses exposed not only the shallowness of the faith in the program, but the thin margin of error for the team and some of its most damning flaws. And this year's Jackets have continued a frustrating trend of pulling off upsets, then dropping games they were favored to win.
That again raises a familiar question: Is Gailey the right coach to lead the Yellow Jackets to the famous "next level?"
More fundamentally, Tech must establish what an acceptable level of success is in football. Is it winning seasons? Check. Is it winning bowl games? Check. Is it truly competing for the ACC title? No check. Is it winning the title, even occasionally? No check.
Braine has offered some insight into his vision for the program, stating on numerous occasions that he believes the Yellow Jackets should be a perennial Top 25 program, able to compete with rival Georgia (Gailey is 0-3 against the Bulldogs), and should begin achieving spots in more high-profile bowl games.
Gailey, in the fourth year of his original five-year contract signed in 2001, has not yet achieved that level of success.
Can he? Can any coach? If Braine were to force out Gailey at the end of the season, in some buyout or outright firing, is there another coach who could do a better job?
These are the questions Tech fans on both sides of the Gailey divide must answer. They are the questions that Braine, who earned a great deal of respect in his business for sticking with Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech through his early struggles, must address before he can make a move - any move - after the season.
In the meantime, here's something else to consider: No Tech assistant coach is under contract for next season. Almost every other team in the ACC has at least one assistant who's signed through 2006, and at places such as Virginia Tech the entire staff fits that description.
BALL, BLOCKERS DISRUPTING OFFENSE
It's not just abstract issues about the future and the direction of the program that have Tech fans worried. Yes, the Yellow Jackets have plenty of problems on the field, too.
Their biggest issue is their inability - and at times their unwillingness - to run the football. Tailback P.J. Daniels had three 100-yard rushing games in the first three games of the season, but the senior's role continues to shrink because Gailey does not believe in his offensive line.
The young line - just one upperclassmen (senior Brad Honeycutt) starts - is not physical enough to play the kind of ball-control, running offense Gailey employed during his first three seasons at Tech. The Yellow Jackets have tried to out-scheme their opponents with traps and counters to highlight the athleticism of their young linemen and to hide their lack of power, but as opponents have collected more videotape, such maneuvers have met with less impressive results.
Instead, the Jackets have relied on the inaccurate arm of junior quarterback Reggie Ball. He threw a career-high 53 passes in the loss to N.C. State. Despite completing well under 50 percent of his passes, Ball was leading the ACC in pass attempts per game.
Wide receiver Calvin Johnson is, unquestionably, the team's greatest talent. He simply must get the ball in his hands as much as possible, and Gailey certainly deserves credit for embracing that idea.
But Daniels appears almost as important - and perhaps just as important - to the team's success. When Daniels rushes for 90 or more yards, the Yellow Jackets are 14-2 since the beginning of 2003. When Daniels plays but doesn't reach that mark, Tech is 2-9.
Without the presence of a solid, dependable running game, Ball must be relied upon to create the entire offense, be it with his legs or his arm. And his well-documented inconsistency continues to be a problem.
There is less talk these days about Ball giving up the starting role because (1) some of the numbers he has put up are pretty gaudy, and (2) fans saw how far backup Taylor Bennett has to go before he can start when Ball was out (against Connecticut) with viral meningitis.
While Ball is making smarter decisions - more throwaways, better reads - it's hard to say that he has turned the corner. His accuracy, an issue throughout his career, is not getting better. According to the numbers, it's getting worse. Ball has completed more than 50 percent of his passes, hardly a superior benchmark, just eight times in 29 career starts.
QUESTIONS SURROUND KICKING GAME
Kicker Travis Bell, a revelation last season, is proving just how unpredictable kickers can be. After making 20 of his first 22 career attempts, including 15 in a row at one point last fall, Bell missed his next five attempts.
Bell's struggles and Tech's inability to find a consistent kickoff specialist call into question some of the decisions the Yellow Jackets have made in regard to kickers under Gailey. The team spent scholarships on junior David Jordan and now-departed Kyle Belcher.
Bell was a walk-on who earned a scholarship after last season. Jordan has been a bust. He has yet to try a field goal attempt in college and twice lost the kickoff job, last year to Belcher and this year to walk-on Mohamed Yahiaoui. Belcher never quite fit in with his teammates and never felt comfortable at Tech, so he left for Georgia and at least temporarily gave up the sport.
So the scholarship situation hasn't really worked very well. With Bell now lacking confidence and conversions, Tech has no other options. It must ride with Bell, who earned a good deal of rope with Gailey for his stellar performance last year.