ATLANTA — This is all new to Paul Johnson.
He built a powerhouse program at Georgia Southern. He won more games than anyone expected at undermanned Navy. And he started his tenure at Georgia Tech with two hugely promising years.
Now, perhaps for the first time in his career, he’s got a team that isn’t living up to expectations.
The Yellow Jackets (5-5, 3-4 ACC) keep making untimely mistakes, never seem to come up with the big play when they need it and, quite frankly, look like they’ve gotten complacent after winning the school’s first outright Atlantic Coast Conference title since 1990.
“We haven’t been as successful as we’d like to be,” Johnson said this week. “I don’t think there’s one thing I can point to. It’s a myriad of things.”
Whatever the case, Georgia Tech needs to win one of these next two games just to extend its bowl streak to 14 in a row. Duke (3-7, 1-5) will visit Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, followed by the traditional finale at Georgia on Nov. 26.
Let’s start with the obvious.
Georgia Tech lost four key players off last year’s ACC championship squad, all of them juniors who gave up their final season to turn pro. Derrick Morgan and Demaryius Thomas were first-round NFL picks, while safety Morgan Burnett and running back Jonathan Dwyer also were drafted.
If any of those four were still wearing the gold and white, the Yellow Jackets would undoubtedly be a better team.
And it sure would help to have star quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, sidelined after suffering a broken arm Nov. 4 against Virginia Tech.
But Johnson knows all college teams must deal with change and injuries, so he’s not going to use that as an excuse. All through his career, he’s been adept at replacing those moving on with someone else who can do the job. For some reason, that hasn’t happened this season.
“You have to have that hunger. You have to have that desire,” Johnson said. “You can’t have a sense of entitlement. We’ve had a lot of success the last two years. A lot of these same guys played a vital role in that. ... But it doesn’t just happen. You have to be hungry. You have to make it happen at the crucial times in the game. We’re just not coming up with the plays.”
Johnson is not used to these sort of results.
In five years at Georgia Southern, he went 62-10, won three Division I-AA championships and never finished worse than 10-3 in a season. Moving on to Navy, he went 2-10 his first year, then guided the Midshipmen to five straight bowls and no fewer than eight wins in a season — even with a team that almost always had less talent than its opponent.
Johnson kept right on rolling at Georgia Tech. His first team went 9-4 and snapped a seven-year losing streak to Georgia. That was followed by an 11-win season that included the ACC title and the school’s first trip to a major bowl (Orange) since the 1960s.
Even after losing the Big Four, the Yellow Jackets started the season in the Top 25 and expecting to contend for another title in the wide-open ACC.
Instead, Georgia Tech has already been eliminated from the conference race and needs to win these last two games, plus a bowl, to avoid saddling Johnson with the second-worst season of his 14-year coaching career.
“We’ve not been able to make a play,” Johnson said. “A year ago, we made those plays. A lot of times, we would make a stop or two when we needed it. Maybe we didn’t have a lot of stops, but we would have one or two stops, and then we would get a score. That’s the biggest difference from last year to this year. We’ve not been able to hold serve.”
Johnson looks at the stat sheet and doesn’t see much of a drop-off — expect with the record.
“The yards are not much different,” he said, the frustration rising in his voice. “But we’re not finishing drives, finishing plays. That’s the difference in a nutshell.”
The players seems as baffled as their coach.
“We’ve been accustomed to winning,” senior cornerback Dominique Reese said. “When coach Johnson came in, he brought in a winning attitude. All we know is a winning with coach Johnson. It’s been very tough this season.”
Reese doesn’t think the Yellow Jackets got bigheaded about their success.
Johnson isn’t so sure.
“I think it’s normal sometimes,” he said. “It doesn’t only happen here. It happens everywhere. That’s what we fight as coaches all the time. Sometimes you have more success fighting it than other times. Is that part of the problem? I don’t think it’s the whole problem, but I certainly think it’s part of the problem.”