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Georgia Tech's football program has been the model of consistency. It knocks off at least one ranked team every fall. It blows a game its fans assumed it would win. And it goes to a bowl, but not the Orange, the Rose, the Sugar or the Fiesta.
Nationwide, only seven other schools can match the Yellow Jackets' string of eight consecutive bowl trips. But Tech wants more. It wants more than the seven victories it has posted in each of coach Chan Gailey's three seasons. It wants more than the 4-4 ACC record it has achieved each of the last four seasons.
This might be the team to break through.
The Jackets welcome back seven starters on a defense that ranked 12th in the nation in yards allowed in 2004 and held six of its last eight opponents under 20 points. The offense features a wealth of young talent and the coaching staff remains intact, including highly regarded defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta.
All of a sudden, a team that has made a habit of being picked low in the conference and finishing in the middle will be expected to contend for a title.
"It will be different, because there have been no expectations prior to this outside the Georgia Tech family," Gailey said.
Georgia Tech has the last two ACC rookies of the year in receiver Calvin Johnson and quarterback Reggie Ball, and also the '03 ACC rushing leader in former walk-on P.J. Daniels. But an offensive line that returns just two starters could have tough going early against a schedule that opens with four '04 bowl teams.
Ball must learn to be consistent. He threw 18 interceptions as a sophomore and might have lost his starting job if Gailey had a realistic alternative. But Ball finished the season with an MVP performance in Tech's 51-14 Champs Sports Bowl victory over Syracuse.
Daniels ran for 1,447 yards in '03 but missed four games '04 because of injuries. The Yellow Jackets have depth behind him; sophomore Tashard Choice transferred from Oklahoma but got an NCAA waiver that makes him eligible to play immediately. Rashaun Grant ran for 122 yards against N.C. State last season and Chris Woods had a 56-yard run as a starter against Miami.
Johnson was Tech's most exciting player last season, catching 48 passes for 837 yards and seven touchdowns. An opposing cornerback described one of Johnson's famous one-handed grabs by saying: "He reached back with his big hand and pulled it in like Spider-Man."
Tenuta likes to keep his players moving and his opponents guessing, and the experience of this year's unit should give him the freedom to add as many twists as ever.
Tech suffered big blows when starting defensive tackle Darryl Richard tore up his knee in the spring, and fellow starter Travis Parker was ruled academically ineligible. The Yellow Jackets have some decisions to make in the preseason, but they'll still be strong on the defensive front. End Eric Henderson made first-team All-ACC in '03 by leading the league in sacks.
Gerris Wilkinson made a seamless transition from defensive lineman to middle linebacker in '04, where he became the ACC's No. 2 tackler and anchored Tech's stingiest defense since 1991.
The backfield loses Thorpe Award semifinalist James Butler and starting corner Reuben Houston, who was arrested on drug-trafficking charges during the summer. Former linebacker Chris Reis and corner/nickel-back Dennis Davis, who received a medical hardship redshirt last fall, will be expected to step in. Reis led the team with eight sacks and six pass breakups last season.
Tech went into 2004 with major question marks in its kicking game and emerged with one of the best kickers in the nation. Travis Bell made every field goal he attempted from 45 yards and in.
The defense should be one of the nation's best. The question for Tech: Will that be enough? Yes, if the inexperienced offensive line develops quickly. Yes, if Ball plays the way he did in the Champs Sports Bowl, not the way he played much of the rest of the season. Yes, if Daniels can stay healthy or Choice can deliver on the ability that earned him a scholarship to Oklahoma. Yes, if the Jackets find another receiver to complement Johnson. Tech's non-conference schedule is one of the nation's toughest, and its only ACC break is not having to play Florida State.