Paul Johnson Has Work to Do

 

Photo by Michael Schneider

Photo by Michael Schneider

The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Coastal Division has some new and powerful blood among the coaching ranks, which just made Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson’s job much more difficult.  Unless Johnson recruits better players and/or hires better coaches, his time at Tech may come to an end sooner than later.  Johnson has coached the Yellow Jackets since 2008, has compiled a 61-44 overall record, and a 38-26 mark in the Coastal Division, finishing first or second six out of his eight seasons on the Flats.

The new coaches in the division are Mark Richt at the University of Miami, Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech, and Bronco Mendenhall at the University of Virginia. Before examining some statistics from Johnson’s eight years at Tech, a brief examination of how Johnson has fared against the current coaches in the Coastal Division requires an examination.

Johnson has a record of 6-2 against David Cutcliffe at Duke University, but Cutcliffe has won the last two meetings against Johnson’s Yellow Jackets.  Larry Fedora of the University of North Carolina, fresh off the 2015 Coastal Division title, is 2-2 versus Johnson, with wins the last two years.  Pat Narduzzi came to the University of Pittsburgh before the 2015 season after a long and successful run as the defensive coordinator at Michigan State University.  From 2011-2014, Narduzzi’ s Michigan State defenses were the only ones ranked every year in the Football Bowl Subdivision Top 10 in total defense and rushing defense.  In Narduzzi’s first season, he led Pitt to the school’s most wins, 8, since 2010.  In Johnson’s only game against Narduzzi, Pitt won 31-28.

While at the University of Georgia, Mark Richt’s Bulldogs defeated Johnson’s Yellow Jackets six out of eight times, including this year’s 13-7 victory.  Tech is 2-6 against the University of Miami in the Johnson era, and if one combines that with Richt’s dominance while at Georgia, it would seem that Johnson will have a very difficult time beating Miami.  Bronco Mendenhall’s Brigham Young University teams easily defeated Johnson’s Tech teams in 2012 and 2013, with the closest deficit being 18 points.  Johnson sports a 5-3 record against Virginia, which has not had a winning season since 2011.  Johnson will have to do a better of job scheming against Mendenhall than the two games against Mendenhall while he was at BYU.  Johnson’s teams have struggled mightily against the Virginia Tech defenses of Bud Foster.  Georgia Tech is 2-6 against Virginia Tech in the Johnson era.  Virginia Tech now has one of the most sought after coaches in college football, Justin Fuente.  Fuente, considered an offensive wizard, took over a University of Memphis program that had won only five games in the prior three seasons.  Within three years Fuente brought Memphis a winning season and a bowl victory.  Under Fuente, Memphis finished 19-6 the last two years.  One of Fuente’s first moves as the Virginia Tech coach was to retain Bud Foster as the defensive coordinator.  With Fuente’s offensive genius and Foster’s defensive wizardry, Johnson will find victories over the Hokies to be a challenge.

Paul Johnson has no peers with his knowledge of the triple option. According to cfbstats.com, Tech’s offenses have generally been very prolific.  In the Johnson era, his teams have finished in the Top 5 in the country in rushing offense every year (except 2015).  This is out of 128 or 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, depending on the year.  In scoring offense, Tech has finished 21st or better in four of Johnson’s seasons, while in total offense Tech has finished 44th or better in six of eight seasons, including two Top 20 finishes.  However, Tech’s defenses and special teams have struggled most years under Johnson.

Three defensive coordinators have served Tech under Johnson.  Tech’s best defense came in 2008, Johnson’s first year.  With players recruited by former coach Chan Gailey, the unit finished 25th in the country in total defense and 28th in scoring defense.  Since then, Tech has finished no better than 53rd in scoring defense and 43rd in total defense (except for the 2013 season, 29th and 28th, respectively).  Again, this is according to cfbstats.com and the rankings are based on 128 or 120 teams, depending on the year.

Special teams play can influence the outcome of a game, and generally, Tech’s units have recorded poor results, according to cfbstats.com.  Punt and kickoff returns help to establish field position, while punt and kickoff coverage can effect field position as well, thereby making it more difficult for opposing offenses to score because of the length of the field they must navigate. From a punt unit standpoint, Tech has had one very good season, 2012, finishing 17th in the country in punt returns and 14th in opponents’ punt returns (OPR).  The 2009 punt return unit finished 10th and scored two touchdowns but the OPR finish was only 43rd.  In Johnson’s other six seasons, the punt return units have finished no better than 53rd and the OPR units have finished no better than 39th, with three of the units finishing 64th or worse.  The kickoff units have been dreadful for almost every season during the Johnson era.  The Kickoff Return units have finished 47th or worse—four units finished 96th or worse—every year except 2012, when the unit finished 27th.  The Opponents’ Kickoff Return units have finished 41st or worse—three units finished 101st or worse—every year except 2010, when the unit finished 18th.

The above statistics are not meant to give an exhaustive statistical indication of Tech’s strengths and weaknesses under Johnson but do offer a fair account of some of the units’ strengths and weaknesses over the years.  While Johnson’s offenses amass large amounts of yardage and points, the defensive and special teams play have generally been detrimental to Johnson’s overall record.  Maybe Johnson can improve his defenses and special teams with better athletes on those units and/or better coaching.

His strategy to this point seems to be to score as many points as he can and hope that is enough to win.  With the stable of capable coaches in the Coastal Division, Johnson’s chances of using this strategy to win games will more than likely lead to more losses.  Of course, he still has to find a way to beat Clemson and Georgia.  The bottom line:  Johnson must continue to maintain highly productive offenses and consistently develop strong defenses and special teams or he will force Athletics Director Mike Bobinski to make an unpleasant decision.

 

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