January 10, 2006
ATLANTA -- Rarely can the lobby of a swank hotel be mistaken for a funeral parlor, but the only thing missing in the foyer of the San Francisco Marriott on the morning of Dec. 30 was a polished casket.
Georgia Tech fans moped around the front desk. They stared out the doors at the rain and wondered if weather would prevent their escape from the home of the Emerald Bowl -- the scene of the crime, so to speak -- where their team had been shellacked by Utah the previous day.
And these fans were among the few thousand loyalists who had made the trip west. Many back home already had swamped Georgia Tech administrators with complaints.
In the course of three hours, Tech fans went from hopeful to sorrowful. And as many of the fans flew home from San Francisco the day after the game, the Yellow Jackets' signature win of 2005 -- a 14-10 victory at Miami -- lost some of its luster, after LSU embarrassed the Hurricanes in the Peach Bowl.
Uncertainty lies ahead for the Jackets.
Football coach Chan Gailey is dealing with the scholarship restrictions recently imposed by the NCAA. Tech can carry only 79 players on scholarship -- six fewer than the NCAA maximum -- for the next two years, a result of an NCAA investigation into the school mistakenly allowing 10 ineligible players to compete over a five-year period.
Gailey still needs to sign the new contract athletic director Dave Braine announced in November.
Rumors abound about Braine's future.
Paul Hewitt's basketball team likely will need to go at least 7-9 in ACC play and win one game in the ACC Tournament just to make it to the postseason.
As one fan said while waiting out a flight delay at San Francisco International Airport the day after the Emerald Bowl, it's a hard time to be a Tech fan.
BOWL GAME EMBARRASSING, PAINFUL
Gailey and the Georgia Tech players didn't mask their disgust with the Emerald Bowl loss. Utah embarrassed them the way the Yellow Jackets had humiliated Syracuse and Tulsa in their previous two bowl appearances.
The Utes' Eric Weddle said he didn't see the same fire in the eyes of the Tech players that he and his teammates had. Utah's Travis LaTendresse, who finished with 16 catches for 214 yards and four touchdowns, accused the Yellow Jackets of quitting.
"I don't think our guys ever quit. I think they get to the point where they feel like they're not going to be able to pull the game out," Tech coach Chan Gailey said. "Quit's probably a strong word. I'd like to see him go into our locker room and say that."
The loss set an ominous tone for 2006. Tech will return 14 starters, including quarterback Reggie Ball and wide receiver Calvin Johnson, and should be considered a contender in the ACC's Coastal Division to start the year. The schedule is brutal, however, with non-conference games against Notre Dame and Georgia and conference matchups at Virginia Tech and Clemson, not to mention home games against Virginia, Miami and Maryland.
Gailey said his team will respond to the bowl loss in one of two ways.
"If you're a competitor, it makes you mad," he said. "It makes you realize how much work you got to do to get to where you want to be. If you're not a competitor, it doesn't bother you."
The bowl loss will hurt Tech in the preseason rankings in August. Had the Jackets beaten Utah, they would have finished in the final top-25 polls this season, with a chance at a spot in the preseason top 15 next fall.
"In college, where you rank in preseason makes a little difference," Gailey said prior to the Emerald Bowl. "It gives you a little bit of a platform for moving up. This game has a bearing on the future."
In retrospect, that's more bad news.
JOHNSON COMMENTS SOUND ALARM
Johnson showed his first sign of annoyance with Georgia Tech's offense following the bowl loss. He caught just two passes, the second straight game in which he was held to two catches. He had fewer than five receptions in eight of Tech's 12 games this season.
"We didn't throw the ball," Johnson said.
He blamed the "interior" for what went wrong, which some took as an obvious reference to the quarterback. Pressed for a better explanation and whether he thought he should have had more passes thrown his way, Johnson said, "I'm not saying that. I'm just saying ... I'm not even commenting."
Johnson's displeasure was understandable. Only three teams chose to play him one-on-one in 2005 -- Virginia Tech (five catches for 123 yards), Wake Forest (4-98) and Utah (2-19) -- and the offensive tendency was to use him as a decoy.
He rarely lined up in the slot, and Tech didn't run any end-arounds or reverses to get the ball in his hands. The most creative way the Jackets got him the ball this season was on flanker screens.
His presence did open up the running game and allowed the wide receiver on the opposite side, usually Damarius Bilbo, to have several solid games.
Gailey no doubt will concoct ways to get Johnson more involved next season. Ball will be a year older and more experienced, and he will have four returning starters on the line in front of him.
Gailey might even hire an offensive coordinator to call the plays. He's handled the play-calling since the 2003 season, when Ball was a true freshman starting at quarterback. Gailey said he's considering turning over those duties for 2006.
HOPES TEMPERED FOR HOOPS, TOO
During the past two years, expectations for the Georgia Tech basketball team quickly diverted attention away from the football team's late-season woes.
Tech won the Preseason NIT in late November 2003, overshadowing season-ending losses to Virginia and Georgia by the football team. Last year, the basketball team opened the season ranked in the top five, while the football team limped home with two more losses.
The Yellow Jackets reassured their faithful both times, however, with convincing bowl victories. The Emerald Bowl loss and a poor start by the basketball team have been a depressing combination this season.
Technically, every Tech basketball game is a sell-out. But crowds were sparse at Alexander Memorial Coliseum for non-conference games. A blowout loss to Illinois-Chicago left fans grousing in the concourses. Two weeks later, the Jackets lost to rival Georgia by double digits.
The Yellow Jackets finally got a signature victory on Jan. 3, against Vanderbilt. Sophomore wing guard Anthony Morrow has emerged as a consistent scoring threat, pouring in 20 or more points in four of Tech's first 11 games. Sophomore forward Jeremis Smith has been bothered by back problems in recent weeks, but he still flirts with a double-double nightly.
Meanwhile, even sophomore point guard Zam Fredrick and sophomore center Ra'Sean Dickey are playing more consistently. Injured guards Mario West and Lewis Clinch initially were expected to return in time for the Jan. 14 game at N.C. State, but Clinch showed up in time for the Yellow Jackets' Jan. 8 home win over Boston College.
"This team, as our confidence grows, we're going to start playing better basketball," Hewitt said. "We have not played up to our capabilities for the first 10 games. We've only had flashes here and there."
Flashes? Right now, any glimmer of hope would be just fine with Tech fans.