1. For my story for myajc and Wednesday’s paper, I spoke with former Georgia Tech wide receiver Mike Fortier, who was a member of the 1966 team that played in the Orange Bowl in what turned out to be coach Bobby Dodd’s final game. (My thanks to Al Ciraldo Jr., son of the legendary broadcaster, for his help in locating multiple members of that team.)
Fortier is 70 and living in Moravian Hills, N.C., after a career in commercial real estate (which seems a common occupation for a lot of former Tech football players). But, anyway, aside from telling me about the game, he shared a great recollection about Dodd that has nothing to do with the Orange Bowl but I thought was worth sharing.
As a sophomore in 1964, Fortier said he was languishing deep on the depth chart, “like, running sixth team.” (The scholarship limit was much higher then.) During the week of the Auburn game, Dodd approached him in practice and asked him if he knew his pass routes (he did) and then told him not to be discouraged, that he wanted him to play against Auburn. It was an unusual conversation – Fortier said that Dodd had not spoken to him since signing his grant-in-aid.
Fortier went back to his dorm room and marveled at his coach.
“I thought, This is amazing,” he said. “This guy, he truly is amazing. He knew I was down. He’s just picking up my spirits.”
Needless to say, Fortier didn’t expect to actually play, but, in the game, Tech was down 3-0 in the second half when Dodd called Fortier over on the sideline.
“He says, ‘Go in and tell the quarterback to throw you the ball,’” Fortier said.
Fortier was in such a fog, he said, that he almost ran out onto the field without his helmet. But, he did as he was told, and, he said, he caught four passes on the drive, the last one for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown in a 7-3 win. From that point on, Fortier played regularly for the rest of his career.
Almost 50 years after playing his last season, Fortier’s admiration for Dodd is obvious.
“He had such a relaxed attitude of coaching, he was amazing,” he said. “People who haven’t played under him have no idea. It would no more make sense in today’s football with all the pressure, pressure, pressure. There was pressure back then, but somehow he enabled us really and truly to have fun, and yet, look at his bowl record, look at his overall record. One of the best of all-time.”
2. The Weather Channel’s forecast for kickoff: 73 degrees, 35 percent chance of showers, winds out of the north/northeast at 4 miles per hour. (How on earth do you forecast a 4 mph wind?) Chance of rain will slightly decrease as the night goes on.
“Rain won’t make any difference other than I’ll probably wear a rain jacket,” Johnson said. “I learned a long time ago, I try not to worry about things I can’t control, and that’s one of them, for sure. … The Orange Bowl committee people have assured me that it’s not going to be raining and it’s going to be about 79 degrees.”
3. One thing that Tech almost certainly won’t have to worry about is players leaving early for the draft. Among underclassmen, the only three that I think would even consider it would be safety Jamal Golden, defensive tackle Adam Gotsis and cornerback D.J. White and I’ve gotten no indication that that’s the case. Johnson said that he wasn’t aware of any players requesting a draft evaluation from the NFL.
4. For the team’s final practice of the season, the team carried the seniors off the field. As they did it by position, the A-backs had a particularly tough time, with seniors B.J. Bostic, Synjyn Days, Deon Hill, Charles Perkins and possibly Tony Zenon (who is out with a torn ACL) getting rides.
Johnson said he tries to do something each season to acknowledge the seniors in the last practice of the season.
Speaking of A-backs, you hopefully saw the photo of A-back Deon Hill interviewing Johnson during media day. It’s a fairly common media-day occurrence, either because players get bored or TV crews are looking to do something fun. In this case, it was the latter, as my WSB colleague Zach Klein lent Hill his microphone and let him go to work. You really should watch it.
Said Johnson, “He wanted to know how Deon Hill was playing and wanted to know what Mississippi State would think if Deon lined up at 3 technique and linebacker and safety. I told him they’d probably like it. But Deon is a character. I think he’s a guy that’s fought through some injuries and some illness, and to be out there playing with his attitude I think speaks volumes for the kind of young man that he is.”
5. Two players from Atlanta will have prominent roles for Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl, one of whom Tech fans may remember. First, defensive end Preston Smith from Stephenson High. Smith was named first-team All-SEC by coaches and will play in the Senior Bowl. He played at Stephenson with Reggis Ball, Reggie’s little brother, and was on the team when Reggie Ball coached quarterbacks. (Reggis, if you’re wondering, plays defensive back for Memphis.)
This season, Smith became the first defensive lineman to be named SEC defensive lineman of the week in three consecutive weeks and has 44 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, three pass break-ups and two forced fumbles. This is clearly someone Tech has to neutralize or avoid.
Smith said he wasn’t recruited by Tech (though he also said he wasn’t interested and wanted to go out of state) and “showing them what they missed out on would be a great challenge.”
Smith raved about the team’s trip, in particular the diversity of women, although he acknowledged there was a bit of a challenge for him since not all of them speak English.
Said Smith, “I think I need to take Spanish again and start all over.”
The other is cornerback Tolando Cleveland, a backup and special teamer. Cleveland was a late decommitment in the 2013 signing class, choosing to sign instead with Mississippi State.
“He really fit our program,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said this week. “A great student, hard worker, he’s the type of guy we look for and we really wanted in our program.”
I got the impression from Cleveland that he would just as soon not face Tech, saying “it is what it is.” Cleveland got to know the members of that signing class, a group that includes guard Shamire Devine, linebacker P.J. Davis and wide receiver Ricky Jeune. He also knows Days and defensive lineman Jabari Hunt-Days, having also graduated from Hillgrove High in Cobb County.
Cleveland’s explanation for his change of school: “You can’t go wrong with the SEC. Coaching staff, just all around. It’s a good school.”
It’s indicative of the challenge that Tech faces often in recruiting and perhaps one reason why Johnson loves to poke holes in the SEC. I imagine there’s a temptation for Tech fans to be critical of Cleveland’s choice, but I’d say this: It’s his life, his choices, and he was a teenager.
I’m not sure how I feel about prospects who decommit for what they perceive to be a better offer, but a) I imagine Tech fans have little qualms about it when it’s a prospect who decommits from another school to commit to Tech; b) they’re 17 or 18 and in a pretty stressful position.
“This is where I chose,” he said. “I wish those guys the best of luck.”
6. Mississippi State offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator John Hevesy’s take on Tech’s defense:
“They’re a very disciplined defense. The one thing to watch about them is they play extremely hard.”
Hevesy saw the defense as not having a star, but 11 players playing well, which he said he found more difficult to attack. Defenses with one premier player, he said, “those are easier than what (the Jackets) are, because it’s 11 guys.”
On defensive end KeShun Freeman: “He’s an active kid. He’s not a big kid, but he’s fast off the edge. He does a great job with his hands. Very talented kid, plus very well-coached in what his abilities are.”
Hevesy said coaches went back and looked at game video from when defensive coordinator Ted Roof was at Auburn and coached against Mississippi State (2009-11) to compare schemes.
“He’s changed a little,” Hevesy said. “Not overhauled – there’s a little philosophy (change) here and there, things he’s done, packages that (are different). … They went to the national championship with that. It’s sound defense, sound scheme, very well-coached kids.”
7. Sun Life Stadium has not been a friendly venue for the Jackets. Tech has lost to Miami there three games in a row, by an average of 16 points, and the 2010 Orange Bowl to Iowa.
Obviously, I’d suggest that the opponent had a little more to do with it than the stadium itself. This is not terribly relevant, but you may remember it used to be called Pro Player Stadium. Its other names: Joe Robbie Stadium, Pro Player Park, Dolphins Stadium and Land Shark Stadium.
If you’re wondering, Sun Life is a financial services company. But what I was going to say was that when I’m trying to remember the name of the stadium for stories, the first thing that always comes to my head is “Pro Life Stadium.”
This has nothing to do with my position on the issue, but just how my brain works. I’d love to believe that somewhere out there is an article or newscast footage with someone referring to it that way. Hopefully not in my deadline copy Wednesday night.
8. There’s four statistical notable benchmarks that the Tech offense can hit Wednesday night (four I’m aware of, at any rate).
Tech leads FBS in third-down efficiency at 56.96 percent. Auburn is second at 53.89. The Jackets have some cushion to still finish first in that category for the second time in school history. (the first was 2009. The NCAA has tracked it only since 2005.) They could go 2 for 12 and still finish ahead of Auburn.
Setting the FBS record (Hawaii, 2006, 57.9 percent) would take some doing. If the Jackets had 12 third downs, they would have to convert nine of them to surpass Hawaii.
Most notably, Tech has hit at this rate in a season in which it faced defenses ranked (at present) first (Clemson, 27.41), fourth (Virginia Tech, 28.79) and 16th (Duke, 34.41), going a combined 18-for-37 against them. Mississippi State is ranked No. 13 at 32.64 percent.
Tech can also set the school record for rushing yards per game and yards per attempt. Tech is averaging 333.62 yards per game and 5.95 yards per carry. The records are 329.7 (1975) and 5.74 (2011).
Tech will need to gain 280 rushing yards to set the average record. With 21 yards, Tech will set the total rushing yardage record (4,357, set by the 2012 team). Obviously, it’s in no small part a function of playing 14 games as opposed to 13, but obviously still a lot of yards.
If Tech doesn’t break the average-per-carry record, it will be rather surprising. Tech could gain no yards on 25 carries and still set the record set by the 2011 team.
Rather interestingly, the featured running back on both the 1975 and 2011 teams was named David Sims, who are unrelated. Also, interestingly, the elder David Sims led the 1975 team with just 590 yards, which means there was a lot of players splitting the load, including freshman Eddie Lee Ivery.
9. The aforementioned story that I spoke with Fortier about was about the meaning of the Orange Bowl game for Tech and what a win would mean. One thing I left out was that Tech would finish in the top 10 of the Associated Press rankings and probably have its highest ranking since the 1990 national championship season.
Tech is No. 10 in the AP poll. If things fall their way, the Jackets could jump to maybe seventh or eighth. No. 6 TCU plays No. 9 Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, No. 4 Baylor plays No. 7 Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl and Mississippi State is No. 8.
The 2009 team finished No. 13 and the 1998 team finished No. 9. Prior to the 1990 team, you’d have to go back to 1966 (a season I seem to reference a lot) and Dodd’s final team, which finished No. 8 to find the third most recent top 10 team. Maybe that would speak as much to anything about what this team has accomplished. (If it happens)
In fact, since 1966 , only 11 teams have finished ranked in the season-ending poll.
10. Brent Musburger (play by play), Jesse Palmer (analyst) and Maria Taylor (sideline) will be on the call for the game. They’ve been working for the SEC Network this season. I think the last time Musburger did a Tech game was the 2012 ACC championship game. Little-known fact about Musburger. His son and my sister Misa went to the same pre-school, I think, in Northbrook, Ill. I vaguely remember my mom telling a not terribly interesting story about seeing Musburger when she went to pick up my sister. I’m counting on hearing the following on the broadcast: “Most of you may not know this, but my son and the sister of Georgia Tech’s beat writer apparently went to pre-school together.”
The 10 series
Georgia Southern (vaguely)
Virginia Tech (vaguely – I didn’t realize until I doing this that I used it twice, and in back to back weeks, no less. For shame.)
Miami (ostensibly – I think this one was my favorite adverb)
North Carolina (doubtfully)
Virginia (hesitatingly – I think this is where I started to use a thesaurus)
N.C. State (mildly)
Florida State (undecidedly – this one is pretty weak)