After a slow start to 2016, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets finished strong and enter 2017 with momentum in what looks to be a crowded ACC Coastal Division. Miami and GT have been ACC Coastal rivals since Miami joined the ACC and have played every year since 2004, with the all-time series deadlocked at 11-11.
However, Miami has owned the Yellow Jackets lately, winning 7 of their past 8 meetings, including a commanding 35-21 win in Atlanta in 2016 that wasn’t quite as close as the score might indicate.
In 2017, Georgia Tech comes to Miami Gardens on Thursday night football looking to take back the series lead from the Canes and establish their dominance in the ACC Coastal.
(If you’d like a more technically sound look at what Georgia Tech brings to the table, check out Justin Dottavio’s piece on the X’s and O’s of this matchup.)
Georgia Tech In a Nutshell
Paul Johnson enters his 10th season as GT’s commander-in-chief and has amassed a respectable 70-48 career record with the Yellow Jackets. He’s taken 2 teams to the Orange Bowl and even has an ACC conference title under his belt at a program not known for being a traditional powerhouse of college football.
Every opposing defensive coordinator knows what to expect from Johnson and GT, but few can really stop it: Johnson lives and dies by his triple-option rushing offense. The gimmick looked to be wearing thin though, when Georgia Tech finished 3-9 in the 2015 season and Johnson was considered on the hot seat after a 3-3 start to 2016. However, the Yellow Jackets rebounded nicely and finished the year 9-4, with a win over rival Georgia and a bowl victory over Kentucky added in to tide over the fanbase.
Even so, the quarterback is what makes the triple-option really go, and in 2017 GT will be replacing one of their best ever in Justin Thomas, a 3 year starter that was dangerous with the ball in his hands. Junior Matthew Jordan was Thomas’ backup the past 2 seasons, often handling short-yardage situations and even starting a game in a win against Virginia Tech last season. He will likely have the first crack at the starting job to open the season, but only if he is healthy; he sustained a foot injury in spring practice and will be out until fall camp.
That’s why you can’t sleep on junior TaQuon Marshall, who doesn’t have the same experience as Jordan but is much more dynamic in the open field. Marshall had a good spring and has the ability and opportunity to take hold of the starting job and run with it.
3 Key Matchups
Miami Rushing Defense vs. Georgia Tech Rushing Offense
The simplest formula for beating GT has been the same since Paul Johnson has been the head man and it won’t change this season: slow down Tech’s ground game, win the contest. Easier said than done, however. Even though Miami dominated the 2016 matchup from beginning to end, Georgia Tech still outperformed their season average of 258.1 yards/game on the ground against the Canes with 267 yards rushing.
GT’s star on the ground, sophomore B-back Dedrick Mills, was recently named to the Maxwell Award Pre-Season Watch List after impressing as a true freshman last season. Mills recorded 13 total touchdowns and 85.7 rushing yards/game in only 9 contests in 2016, which included 99 yards and 2 TD’s against the Canes, and will be a handful for the Miami front 7. Add in playmaking A-back Clinton Lynch, who averaged 11.2 yards per carry and 30.6 yards per catch last season, and you have a running game that is extremely deadly and can take one to the house at any time.
Playing assignment football on defense is key when dealing with the misdirection employed by the triple-option, and Hurricane linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Mike Pinckney, and Zach McCloud must stay in their lanes and play disciplined football to have a chance to slow down the Tech attack.
Miami Offensive Line vs. Georgia Tech Pass Rush
Defensively, the Yellow Jackets were extremely weak in 2016 when asked to rush the passer. They were 114th in sacks and 120th in tackles for loss out of 128 FBS teams and in 2017 they will be without leading pass rusher Patrick Gamble, who has since graduated. Conversely, while Miami’s offensive line has not exactly been a beacon of success lately, they improved as 2016 went on, and bring back an intriguing mix of young talent and experience in 2017. Coach Searels’ crew should easily handle the flat GT pass rush and give the new Miami QB plenty of time in the pocket; the question is, will he be able to make the Yellow Jackets pay?
Miami Rushing Offense vs. Georgia Tech Run Defense
Mark Richt will want to institute the run game from the start against a Georgia Tech front 6 (they play a 3-3-5) that lacks clear-cut leaders or difference makers. GT linebacker Brant Mitchell is the Yellow Jackets’ top returning tackler in the front 6 but he will have his hands full trying to slow down Miami superstar Mark Walton. If Walton can run wild in the early going, it will put more pressure on GT to bring another man into the box to rub out the Miami run game. That opens up a ton of space for speed demons like Ahmmon Richards, Dionte Mullins, Jeff Thomas, and Mike Harley to blow the top off the defense deep.
The Canes have a Friday night game at Duke and then a bye week before playing GT at home on a Thursday night. That extra time is invaluable when taking into consideration how unique an offense the triple-option is and that preparing for it takes a special approach that is atypical of normal game week prep. Last season, the Canes also had a bye week to prepare for GT and Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz replaced the offensive linemen on the scout team with fullbacks and tight ends to help simulate the speed of the Georgia Tech triple-option offense, as well as their affinity for cut blocks. That strategy had a young Miami defense ready to whip up on Tech in 2016, so get ready of more of the same in 2017.
This is yet another game on Miami’s schedule in which they will have a clear talent edge at their disposal. GT will want to chew up the clock and limit the amount of possessions Miami gets, but with such a run heavy offense that has an aversion to throwing the ball, Georgia Tech is not the type of team that can play well from behind. Last season, Miami got up 28-7 early and you knew the game was over. If Miami can get up early again, they will force the Yellow Jackets to change their gameplan and into the uncomfortable position of having to throw more, which plays greatly to the advantage of the orange and green.
With Miami in front of the home crowd for a night game and coming off a bye week, we see no reason the Canes won’t slow down GT’s triple-option enough for the Miami offense to outscore Tech and their suspect defense. We like Miami, 35-17.