Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (2000: 9-3)
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Coach and programFor someone who has the second-most established program in the ACC, Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary still has a few questions to answer as he begins his seventh year in Atlanta.
There is no doubt that the Yellow Jackets, who have played in four consecutive bowl games and won at least eight games the last three years, have been the most consistent challenger to Florida State since North Carolina made a run in 1996 and '97. They even tied the Seminoles for the ACC title in 1998.
But that was with Ralph Friedgen, Tech's mastermind offensive coordinator, calling the plays. Friedgen is gone now, leaving in December to take the top job at his alma mater, ACC rival Maryland.
To replace him, O'Leary promoted Bill O'Brien, a seven-year veteran of the staff who spent the last three years coaching the running backs. It was a rather controversial choice -- at 31, O'Brien is one of the youngest offensive coordinators in Division I-A.
O'Leary says he didn't hire O'Brien to be an exact replica of Friedgen, whose creative offenses uses multiple formations and sets. O'Leary fully expects there to be changes in the Yellow Jacket offense this season, if only because the personnel is different.
There's a lot for O'Leary to be excited about. He has the most starters (18) returning of any team in the ACC. His defense, the Achilles heel of his best teams, looks to be the team's biggest strength. He has an established quarterback and perhaps the best receiving corps in the league.
So the key question for the Yellow Jackets is whether O'Brien's offense can churn out the points and production Friedgen's did. If that doesn't happen, O'Leary won't be able to deflect derogatory comments for long.
OffenseQuarterback George Godsey was one of the biggest surprises in the ACC last year, as he went from a little known reserve to the talk of Atlanta with his accurate passes. He completed 222-of-349 passes for 2,906 yards, earning a spot on the All-ACC second team.
But the knee injury Godsey suffered during the Peach Bowl threw a scare into O'Leary and new offensive coordinator O'Brien. Neither of his backups have any real game experience, and the Jackets might be out of luck if Godsey's knee isn't completely healed by the time the season-opener against Syracuse rolls around.
Assuming Godsey is able to stand upright and an inexperienced offensive line can protect him, there will be plenty of targets to throw to in Georgia Tech's complex offensive system, starting with two-time All-ACC pick Kelly Campbell (5-11, 170). The senior from Atlanta is the best receiver in the league and one of the top players in the country. He has already set the school record for touchdown receptions in a year with 21 and needs only 27 catches and 92 receiving yards to break Harvey Middleton's school marks in those categories.
For the last three years, the Yellow Jackets have had a hive-full of running backs. This year, the only difference is that all of last season's backs return with another year of experience behind them.
The premier player is junior Joe Burns (5-10, 205), even though he only saw one week of action in the spring. He took the rest of the time off to concentrate on academics. O'Leary emphasized that Burns is not in academic trouble, but that he needed to spend some time catching up.
Undersized junior Sidney Ford (5-9, 205), who had the team's best yards-per-carry average at 5.0, got plenty of repetitions and ended up second on the post-spring depth chart.
Defense and special teamsThe Yellow Jacket defense is hardly a laughingstock any more.
O'Leary made changes in his staff and now former Jacket linebacker Ted Roof is in his third year as defensive coordinator. Under Roof's direction, those formerly frightening numbers have improved dramatically.
He certainly has the defensive ends to build around. Junior Greg Gathers (6-1, 260) is one of the premier players in the country. He finished third in the nation last year with 13 sacks, while adding 20 tackles for loss, an interception and a fumble return for a touchdown. His partner, senior Nick Rogers (6-2, 255) wasn't far behind, making 13 tackles for loss and getting nine sacks.
The Yellow Jackets likely have never had a trio of young linebackers as good as junior Recardo Wimbush (6-1, 218), sophomore Daryl Smith (6-2, 225) and sophomore Ather Brown (6-3, 220). Add in sophomores Keyaron Fox (6-3, 220), Anthony Lawston (6-3, 220) and Sterling Green, and Tech looks like it can be dominant at this position for years to come.
Notre Dame transfer Albert Poree (5-10, 190), a sophomore who spent only one season in South Bend, won one of the starting cornerback positions in the spring, allowing senior Chris Young (6-0, 207) back to strong safety, where he feels more comfortable. Young played the final five games last year at cornerback.
Kicker is one area where O'Leary has no concerns. Junior Luke Manget (5-9, 176) is one of the nation's best place-kickers, entering this season as a front-runner for the Lou Groza Award.
Bottom lineThe Yellow Jackets will know early whether they will challenge Florida State's ACC dominance. The Seminoles, under massive reconstruction this year, play host to the Yellow Jackets on Sept. 15 and Tech loyalists hope that O'Leary is right when he says that the Jackets are closer than ever to matching the Seminoles athlete-for-athlete.
However, the Jackets' next game after Florida State is Clemson, a team that has Tech in its sights. O'Leary should know before September is over whether his team will challenge for the ACC title.
"I think we have a chance to be a good team,'' O'Leary said. "I really do. As I tell the kids all the time, you're either going to get better or worse. You're never the same. And I thought we got better in the spring."