Monday, October 19, 2009

Georgia Tech Football Retrospective: the 05-08 Years

October 2009 has so far proven to be a great time to be a Yellow Jacket fan. A convincing win at an SEC stadium. The first victory at Doak Campbell Stadium in twenty years. The first home victory against a top-five team in forty. All this got me thinking about a conversation I had with my roommates last year, discussing the top five greatest football moments in out time at Tech. This, more or less, was our consensus.

Game #5: #3 Notre Dame 14, Georgia Tech 10; 9/2/06, Bobby Dodd Stadium
"Wait, I thought these were supposed to be the five greatest games. How can you start with one where Tech loses?" I usually hate saying things like this, but I think it was one of those games that you really had to be there. Never before or since did I see Bobby Dodd Stadium so energized. Mild September night, complete sellout, jam-packed student section, and more enthusiasm than I've ever seen at a college football game.

And although the good guys did lose, this game was important for at least two reasons. First, it reaffirmed that Tech could go toe-to-toe with the nationally-recognized "elite" of college football and still come away with a win. And second, it represented a sort of "coming-out" party for Calvin Johnson as one of the greatest receivers playing the game.

Game #4: Georgia Tech 38, #9 Virginia Tech 27; 9/30/2006, Lane Stadium
The GT-VT rivalry has quietly been fomenting as one of the fiercest in the ACC. The ACC Championship game has been played four times; VT or GT has represented the ACC Coastal in it all four times. Two of those times (2006 and 2008), the GT-VT game more or less directly decided the division. And on top of all that, both "Techs" are similar academically and demographically, often being considered "peer institutions" to each other.

The 2006 installment of the rivalry came after the most lopsided--and embarrassing, for Georgia Tech fans--game in its history, a 51-7 loss at Blacksburg. Not to be deterred, GT marched right back to Blacksburg the very next year and turned things around. It was almost over halfway through the first quarter, when GT scored 21 points in the first eight minutes. Winning this game led Tech to its first (and so far only) ACC championship game.

Game #3: Georgia Tech 31, #16 Florida State 28; 11/1/08; Bobby Dodd Stadium
Where the GT-VT rivalry has been a close one that's had more than its fair share of influence in determining the conference champion recently, the Tech-Florida State rivalry has been one of mind-boggling losing streaks and embarrassing lopsidedness. Tech hadn't defeated Florida State at home since 1975. They hadn't beaten Florida State at all in the last twelve tries, dating back to 1992. And the list went on. That all changed this game.

I call this the most impressive home win I ever watched as a Tech student, and the fact that it broke all these miserable streaks was only part of it. It sounds crazy, but I swear there was a "vibe" around Bobby Dodd that day that something was going to change. This game was the only rushed field of my undergrad career, and it was Paul Johnson's first "marquee win" over a ranked opponent in his tenure as Tech's head coach.

And it's the only time I ever saw Paul Johnson smile, aside from when he accepted the job as head coach.

Game #2: Georgia Tech 14, #3 Miami 10; 11/19/2005, Miami Orange Bowl
The Chan Gailey years were a roller coaster in every sense that a football tenure can be. Over those six or seven years, Tech made a habit of losing to teams like Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia... but then they'd unexpectedly pull out massive upsets against the likes of Miami. Seven sacks, only 30 rushing yards allowed, and Calvin Johnson's famous lying-stretch catch that made people sit up and notice just how good he was. All this against the number 3 team in the nation.

In fact, the prospect of upsetting Miami was so incredible that it made people who never cared about football at all get excited. I remember being in Memphis for the most prestigious mock trial invitational of the season (the old Blues City Challenge), when we really should have been practicing in anticipation of our fourth round Sunday morning, our team's usually-strict coaches decided to look the other way and "trust us to practice instead of watching the game".

Game #1: #18 Georgia Tech 45, #11 Georgia 42; 11/29/08, Sanford Stadium
You might never hear a higher-up at the Tech Athletic Association admit it, but plain and simple, this is the game that Paul Johnson was hired to win. Chan Gailey had done a middling to decent job as head coach for the past several years, but had never beaten Tech's archrival, the University of Georgia. The vaunted rivalry was starting to lose steam: an informal poll taken of UGA fans ranked Tech as the fourth most important rivalry that UGA had, behind Florida, Tennessee, and (of all teams) South Carolina.

A passive sort of coach might have sat on his hands for a year, feeling Georgia out, and preparing to beat the Bulldogs in his second year in the much friendlier confines of Bobby Dodd Stadium. But Paul Johnson is not the passive sort of coach. Instead, he rose to the challenge, overcoming a 28-12 deficit at the half to claim victory between the hedges. Tech players snipped off parts of the vaunted hedges as trophies; when Paul Johnson was asked if he'd taken a souvenir, he responded "no, I figure I'll be back here."

This game was incredibly important for the rivalry. It preserved the longest winning streak in the series at Tech's 8 (Bobby Dodd back in the 50's). It answered the question "what has Paul Johnson done for the program?", if there were any doubts lingering after the aforementioned Florida State game, and it turned Johnson into a folk hero around campus. It reignited passion for the rivalry on both sides of US 78. And it gave the Class of 2009 its only win in "Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate" that they'd enjoy as students.

Coach Johnson continues to rise to the challenge. If I were still at Tech and making this list to include this year's games, I'd have to include at least two. The road win at Florida State was probably an even bigger deal for the program and for historical trends than the win at VT in 2006, and a win against #4 VT at home (on homecoming!) with the goalposts coming down probably had more buzz and more energy than either the Notre Dame game or last year's Florida State victory.

Four incredible wins in a year and a half have made me incredibly optimistic about the future of the GT program. The road to the Orange Bowl is tricky but still doable this year, and once Paul Johnson starts recruiting people specifically for his offense, I see no limit to how impressive Tech football might become.

Currently listening: Brandenburg Concerto #3 as performed by Maurice Andre

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