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Thursday, May 1, 2014
By the numbers: Georgia Tech's option

By David M. Hale

The natives are getting restless in Atlanta, and the pressure on Paul Johnson to coach Georgia Tech beyond its recent mediocrity is at an all-time high. The big-picture reason for the hot-seat rumblings is pretty simple: In its last four seasons, Tech is 23-25 against FBS teams. In its last four seasons under Chan Gailey (2004-07), it was 27-21 -- and that was bad enough to earn Gailey a pink slip.

In other words, the results simply aren’t there, and Yellow Jackets fans are demanding better.

But if the win-loss record explains the frustration, what explains the win-loss record?

The default answer among critics, pretty much since the day Johnson arrived on campus, is the option offense.

It’s a touchy subject, really. Johnson defends his system as being more nuanced than what most casual observers suggest, and he’s right. Detractors note the throwback style and say it can’t be consistently effective against today’s athletic defenders. They’ve probably got a point, too.

But what is lost in the debate is that, through six years at Georgia Tech, Johnson’s offense has been good most of the time (and, for what it’s worth, has averaged nearly 80 more yards per game in the last four years than Gailey's teams did in his final four seasons at Tech).

Of course, the aggregate numbers aren’t necessarily the full story. What about that criticism that teams will figure out Johnson’s scheme over time and the more athletic defenses will solve the puzzle?

Indeed, Georgia Tech’s 5.1 yards per rush against AQ-conference teams last season represented the lowest number of Johnson’s tenure. It was also the third straight season in which that average declined. Still, even that paltry total by Tech’s standards was good for 13th nationally.

If we divide Tech’s FBS opponents from 2013 by rushing defense -- six that allowed 4 yards or fewer per carry for the season, five that allowed more -- we see that Tech did struggle against top defenses.

Overall, the Jackets mustered 1.1 more yards per carry and nearly 100 rushing yards more per game against the bottom half of its schedule than the top half. And in those six games against defenses that allowed 4 yards or fewer per rush, Georgia Tech was 1-5 last year.

Still, there are other numbers that suggest the rushing totals aren’t the complete story.

Tech has always seen some sharp splits in its offensive totals based on the outcome (about 125 yards per game more in wins than losses during Johnson’s tenure), but last year actually accounted for Tech’s second-best variance in win-loss splits.

And while Tech certainly struggled more against better run defenses last year, we can go back to Johnson’s best season -- 2009, when Tech won 11 games -- and find the same splits. Against defenses that allowed 4 yards or fewer per carry, Tech managed 1.2 fewer yards per rush and 106 fewer yards per game than against worse run defenses.

Moreover, Johnson actually went away from his modus operandi a bit more often last season than he had in the past -- throwing the ball, on average, about four times more per game than during his previous five seasons with the Yellow Jackets.

In other words, not much has changed for Johnson and Tech’s offense since he arrived in 2008 -- at least statistically. And that’s sort of the point. While the world around him ebbs and flows, Johnson has stayed remarkably consistent.

The problem for Tech, however, is that everything else in Johnson’s purview hasn’t been quite so static. The defense has allowed more yards per game in each of the last three seasons. Recruiting has been problematic -- both in terms of star ratings coming in and NFL evaluations going out. The narrative surrounding the program has become unwieldy, even for a coach used to refuting the same, tired critiques of his offense, and Vad Lee's decision to transfer only added fuel to that fire.

The end result of it all isn’t that Johnson’s offense dooms Georgia Tech to mediocrity. It’s that the scheme simply doesn’t provide enough to plug the other holes in what fans are increasingly concerned is a sinking ship.