10 hypothetically must-read Tech notes

Georgia Tech wide receiver Darren Waller made the first big play of last year's Tech-Georgia game, a 68-yard reception to set up the Yellow Jackets' first touchdown. (AJC file photo by Johnny Crawford)

Georgia Tech wide receiver Darren Waller made the first big play of last year’s Tech-Georgia game, a 68-yard reception to set up the Yellow Jackets’ first touchdown. (AJC file photo by Johnny Crawford)

1. With its SEC Network distribution, Saturday’s game will be the first time the Tech-Georgia game won’t appear on ABC, ESPN or CBS since 1991, which, in television terms, is practically the Pleistocene period (ESPN2, for instance, wasn’t launched until 1993). The reason is obvious – it’s part of a worldwide conspiracy that includes ESPN, Congress, Interpol and IPTAY to make life miserable for Tech fans.

Just kidding.

As I understand it, the SEC Network’s contract calls for it to have three SEC-controlled games a week (i.e., games in SEC stadiums or the Georgia-Florida game). CBS gets first pick of SEC games and took the Egg Bowl. By quirk of the Thanksgiving schedule spreading games over three days and the number of ACC-SEC games this week, that left just three games under SEC control for Saturday – Auburn-Alabama, Tennessee-Vanderbilt and Tech-Georgia. South Carolina is at Clemson, Kentucky is at Louisville and Florida is at Florida State.

As a result, Tech-Georgia is on the SEC Network. ESPN did claim the Iron Bowl, although it will be simulcast on the SEC Network in a format that I have to say is pretty clever. Radio show host Paul Finebaum will be hosting the game and will take calls during the game. I daresay that might be more entertaining than the game itself.

Given that South Carolina-Clemson and Florida-Florida State –traditional rivalries but this year games that would seem to hold far less interest and meaning than Tech-Georgia – are both on ESPN and that Kentucky-Louisville and Pitt-Miami are on ESPN2, I feel pretty comfortable saying that, had this game been at Bobby Dodd Stadium, it would have been on ESPN or ABC.

2. For a story I wrote prior to Tech’s game against Tulane about both schools’ departure from the SEC, I spoke with Georgia coaching great Vince Dooley for his perspective on it. I was curious mostly for his perspective on how he felt Tech’s leaving the conference impacted the rivalry and possibly influenced the Bulldogs’ rise. But, in our conversation, he shared a rather interesting detail that I’d never heard before – that he, along with his school, tried to get Tech back into the SEC before it joined the ACC in 1978.

“It was in Atlanta and in our area and really better for us because the (Tech-Georgia) game, it will always be the biggest rivalry, but it was even more so when it was in conference, because you’d have a championship riding on the game in the conference,” Dooley said.

Dooley said Georgia worked back channels and acted as a sponsor for Tech and had support, but, “the western brothers and sisters were not so supportive, without naming names.”

The names are Ole Miss and Mississippi State, schools that coach Bobby Dodd refused to schedule during Tech’s time in the SEC.

That followed another unofficial attempt, if you can call it that, in 1975. Bill Curry, who then was a scout for the Green Bay Packers, was visiting Alabama and spoke with Bryant, who at that point was ready to end a feud with Dodd that had simmered since a vicious Tech-Alabama game in 1961. Bryant told Curry to tell Dodd that he would sponsor Tech’s re-entry into the SEC.

Curry raced back to Atlanta to tell Dodd, who was likewise ready to bury the hatchet but saw the SEC as an impossibility.

“’We’ll never get back in the SEC because the Mississippi schools hate us too much,’” Curry said, quoting Dodd. “Those were his exact words.”

Roy Kramer, formerly the SEC commissioner, said “there were some brief conversations” with Tech officials when the conference expanded to 12 in 1990 with Arkansas, “but of course they were in the ACC at the time.”

3. Tech fans may want to find a piece of wood to knock, but it would appear the team is well on its way to setting a season low for fumbles in coach Paul Johnson’s tenure. The Jackets have 16 through 11 games, which is tied for 56th in the country. It’s not remarkable until you take into consideration how Tech has done previously.

Year, number of fumbles, national rank

2013: 28, T117

2012: 31, 118

2011: 31, T114

2010: 37, T119

2009: 34, T119

2008: 36, T117

Tech’s 197 fumbles, 87 of which were lost, were the most of any team in FBS over that six-year period. I’d say the improvement this season, which took place with new starters at the three positions that handle the ball the most frequently, is a very significant reason for the team’s success.

The main players – center Freddie Burden, quarterback Justin Thomas and B-backs Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days – deserve plenty of credit for their improvements in securing the ball.

4. Another reason? By rough count, Tech has missed 10 starter games with injuries. The offensive line has had two – left tackle Bryan Chamberlain and right tackle Chris Griffin missed one game each. For a team that doesn’t have much depth, that has been critical. A-back Broderick Snoddy’s broken leg was the first injury that was season ending.

I spoke with Jay Shoop, Tech’s sports medicine director, for a story that hopefully will run next week on a different topic. The first thing he mentioned was that coaches have had a good handle on knowing when to ease up on the team in practice. There has also been an advancement in training techniques and an increased emphasis on flexibility and stretching.

“I think all those things enter into it, but we’ve probably had a little bit of luck to go with it,” he said.

5. If Tech can somehow continue its hot streak with defensive touchdowns, it would buck a considerable Georgia run of preventing defensive scores.  The Bulldogs have allowed only one touchdown by fumble or interception return going back to the start of the 2013 season, a stretch of 1,678 offensive snaps. It was a fumble return in 2013 by Missouri’s Michael Sam. It helps that Georgia only has eight giveaways this season, tied for second fewest in the country.

Tech’s defense, on the other hand, has scored six touchdowns in 697 snaps by opponent offenses, five by interception, four in the past two weeks. The Jackets have 24 takeaways, tied (with Georgia, among others), for 17th in the country.

Georgia is No. 3 in the country in turnover margin (+ 16). Tech is tied for ninth (+10). Tech’s best margin under Johnson is +4, in 2012.

6. Johnson, on him relishing the underdog role: “I’d rather be a big favorite.”

7. Thomas needs 234 yards over the next three games to break Woodrow Dantzler’s ACC record for most rushing yards in a season by a quarterback. Thomas has 827; Dantzler ran for 1,061 in 2001.

The only problem is that Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy is at 1,059 and plays Syracuse Saturday and will play in a bowl game. The Tech record is a trifle closer for Thomas. Joshua Nesbitt ran for 1,037 yards in 2009. Thomas is already third, behind Nesbitt and Tevin Washington (2011, 987).

On the topic, sort of, of Boston College, Eagles coach Steve Addazio merits consideration for ACC coach of the year. The Eagles were 7-6 last season and picked sixth in the Atlantic. With a win over Syracuse, Boston College will be 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the ACC.

That said, I’d surmise the winner will either be Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher or Johnson. If it’s Johnson, it’ll be his third in seven years.

My friend Jason Getz took this photo last year. I no longer have the privilege of working with Jason, and this photo doesn't represent a particularly important part of last year's game, but it's a great photo, isn't it? It's almost like a watercolor. (AJC file photo by Jason Getz)

My friend Jason Getz took this photo last year. I no longer have the privilege of working with Jason, and this photo doesn’t represent a particularly important part of last year’s game, but it’s a great photo, isn’t it? It’s almost like a watercolor. (AJC file photo by Jason Getz)

8. Shortly after the Tech-Georgia game likely ends, former Tech quarterback Vad Lee will lead James Madison into its first-round FCS playoff matchup with Liberty. It’s just the second playoff appearance for James Madison in the past six years. Lee, who transferred from Tech shortly after the 2013 season, has had a phenomenal year.

Lee has completed 264 of 430 passes for 3,323 yards, 29 touchdowns against six interceptions. He has rushed for a team-high 769 yards. He is fifth in FCS in passing yards and fourth in total offense. He has set school single-season recourse for passing yards, completions, attempts, yards, touchdown passes and total offense. Most notably, he is a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given to the most outstanding player in FCS. As a Tech staffer put it this week, Lee’s transfer worked out well for all involved.

Another transfer, offensive tackle Morgan Bailey, is on the roster of No. 7 seed Coastal Carolina, which is 11-1. Bailey, however, has not played in any games this season.

To round out the transfer update, former defensive linemen Darius Commissiong and Kevin Robbins will play for the junior college national championship with Western Iowa against East Mississippi Dec. 7. They are second (Commissiong, 62) and third (Robbins, 56) on the team in tackles among linemen. Both can transfer after the season or academic year. Georgia State has offered Commissiong, according to 247sports.

9. The last time Tech and Georgia both had nine wins going into the game was perhaps the most anticipated matchup in the rivalry’s history, 1942. Tech was 9-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country. Georgia was No. 5 and 9-1. The game was chronicled in a book I’d recommend to any Tech fan, “Jackrabbit” by Bill Chastain, a biography of Clint Castleberry, the only player in Tech history to have his jersey retired. Castleberry, whose quickness and speed led a writer to compare him to a crazed jackrabbit,” left Tech after his freshman season to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. His plane off the west African coast went missing in Nov. 1944 and was never recovered.

Castleberry finished third in Heisman Trophy balloting that year, the highest ever to that point for a freshman and not exceeded until Adrian Peterson finished second in 2004. (Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston were the first two freshmen to win the award.)

In the game, a Rose Bowl berth was believed to be on the line. However, Castleberry was injured in the game and Tech lost 34-0. Georgia, with eventual College Football Hall of Famers Charley Trippi and Frank Sinkwich on the roster, won its first SEC title and went on to beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

10. Two of the principals in Saturday’s game, Tech defensive end KeShun Freeman and Georgia running back Nick Chubb, are friends, an example of the ties in this game that make in-state rivalry games so different. Chubb and Freeman met in the Rising Seniors all-star game (put on by former Tech running back Joe Burns) when both were juniors. The two were on the same team, along with Tech freshman defensive backs Lance and Lawrence Austin.

Freeman said the four spent much of the time laughing and joking.

“We were on the same team, but practices and everything, we got after it,” Freeman said.

If you’re wondering, Chubb was portrayed on the offensive scout team by Tech A-back Austin McClellan and wide receiver Qua Searcy.

“They’re doing pretty good,” Freeman said. “They give us a good look.”
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