ATLANTA — Go ahead and tell Paul Johnson that his throwback offense can't work at a big-time university.
He's heard it all before.
Heck, he thrives on the skepticism.
"You enjoy proving people wrong," said Johnson, who rarely smiles but allowed himself a bit of a satisfied smirk when he considered how many times he's done just that.
Down at Georgia Southern, he took over a program in disarray and quickly restored it to small-college prominence. Up at Navy, he proved that a military school could be competitive with the big boys. And now, in his second year at Georgia Tech, he's winning with the same ol' regularity in one of the BCS conferences.
The No. 10 Yellow Jackets (8-1, 5-1 ACC) are two wins away from playing in the league championship game. They've already achieved their highest ranking since 2001, all this coming on the heels of a nine-win season in 2008 that went a long way toward answering all those questions about Johnson's trademark spread option.
True to his nature, Johnson glosses over all the wins and praise from his debut season in Atlanta. Instead, he prefers to remember those handful of haters who cropped up again after Georgia Tech was blown out by LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, supposedly exposing a way to shut down his run-oriented offense.
"It seems that no matter how much success you have, that never goes away," Johnson said. "They keep saying, 'Next year, they're going to get you.' Last year, after the LSU game, everyone said, 'That's it. It's over. There's the blueprint.' It's funny. LSU can hold Florida to 10 points or whatever it was, but it ain't over for (the Gators)."
Georgia Tech is certainly unique among major colleges, most of whom use a prostyle offense (better for recruiting quarterbacks who long to play in the NFL) or some version of the spread that Florida's Urban Meyer helped popularize.
Johnson's offense is more in line with run-dominated schemes that were so popular in the 1960s and '70s, like the wishbone and veer. While Georgia Tech usually lines up only one runner behind the quarterback, there are two wingbacks on each edge of the line who essentially serve the same purpose as halfbacks in those old-style offenses.
Quarterback Josh Nesbitt takes the snap and has several options. He can hand off to the running back up the middle, pitch the ball to one of his wingbacks (known as A-backs in Johnson-speak) or just run it himself. Occasionally, Nesbitt drops back for a pass — a rarely used but often lethal weapon because defenses usually leave receiver Demaryius Thomas in single coverage.
"We run a lot, but this is actually a good offense for the big plays," said Thomas, who leads the ACC in receiving yards per game (91.4). "You've just got to be patient until you get your chance — and then make a play on it."
Of course, the Yellow Jackets spend most of their time running the ball, befuddling defenses with a potpourri of pitches and deception. They're averaging more than 304 yards on the ground (ranking second nationally) and managed to beat then-No. 4 Virginia Tech while completing only one pass.
"This is something that kind of reminds you of the old Texas teams and the Oklahoma teams when they were running the wishbone," said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, whose team faces Georgia Tech on Saturday. "You've got a coach in Paul Johnson who's as good as there's ever been running the triple option, and you've got all these all-solar system talent guys running it. It really is scary to watch."
Certainly, much of the credit goes to the man calling the shots. Johnson has unwavering faith in his offense, so much so that he seems to take every little snippet of criticism as a personal affront.
"When you have to answer those same questions every week," he said, in a moment of self-reflection, "you probably do become more defensive than you should be."
All those doubters have created a coach who doesn't fit neatly into one easily defined category. Johnson appears to be overflowing with confidence in what he does, yet he's driven by those who believe he can't possibly keep having so much success. He often comes across as someone who believes he knows a little bit more than everyone else, but any perceived arrogance is tempered by the seemingly joyless way Johnson goes about his work.
No matter what his team does, it never seems quite good enough.
He never seems to take time to savor the triumphs.
"I probably need to do more of that," Johnson acknowledged. "But it's just not in my nature. I'm always pushing, I guess. I've always been that way. I don't know why. That's just me."
The biggest challenge at Georgia Tech came at the beginning. Several players transferred and others considered leaving, and Johnson just asked everyone to give his offense a chance.
"We had so many people telling these kids it wasn't going to work, so many people telling them, 'Man, you need to get out of here. It's not going to fit you,'" he said.
"My experience is when the players are around the offense, when they practice it and go through it for a while, they're smart kids. They say, 'Hey, dude, this may be hard to stop if we go it right.'"
Surely, there will come another game when the Yellow Jackets struggle.
Surely, there will be a skeptic out there who raises questions about the offense.
Rest assured, Johnson will be listening.