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The Paul Johnson Phenomenon

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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After just 19 points from the Yellow Jackets in a disappointing loss at Pittsburgh, Paul Johnson's critics are, once again, out in full force.

Three games into the 2018 season, Georgia Tech is 1-2, its lone win coming over FCS Alcorn State. After just 19 points from the Yellow Jackets in a disappointing loss at Pittsburgh, Paul Johnson's critics are, once again, out in full force. While he, as the head coach, is certainly responsible for the entire product on the field, a good portion of the angst appears to be centered around Johnson's triple-option offensive base. Georgia Tech's scheme has long been a major point of contention.

What is interesting about that focus is that the Yellow Jackets currently rank first in the ACC Coastal Division, and fourth in the league overall, in total offense with 510.3 yards per game. For point of reference, Johnson's attack is currently more productive than the likes of Oregon, Washington State, Penn State and Georgia, among many others. Georgia Tech has 1,531 yards, three-time running College Football Playoff participant Clemson has 1,539. The Yellow Jackets slot 21st nationally in both total offense and yards per play, at 7.02.

That trend is more of a return to form for Johnson's Yellow Jackets. From 2008-2014, Georgia Tech ranked in the top four in the ACC in total offense every single year, leading the league in yards per game four different times. Finishes of 10th, 11th and 8th the past three seasons were atypical, a downward turn the Yellow Jackets seem to have reversed. Though obvious other problems stood out, Georgia Tech compiled 602 total yards and scored 38 points in a week two loss at South Florida. Two years in a row now, the offense has topped the 600-yard mark and lost.

Even with the aforementioned regression of the past few seasons, Johnson's Georgia Tech offenses, up through last weekend, have averaged 419.9 yards per game. Those numbers compare pretty well to the traditional powers on the Yellow Jackets' schedule in that same span: Clemson 437.7, Georgia 420.9, Florida State 420.8, Miami 405.6 and Virginia Tech 386.3.    

Largely, there has been a notable consistency to Johnson's Georgia Tech production. Over the last decade, the Yellow Jackets have only had 16 games where they have averaged fewer than 4.5 yards per play offensively. Miami has also had 16 games under that average, while Clemson has had 26 and Virginia Tech has had 33. Ongoing, Georgia Tech has averaged over 4.1 yards per play in 23 consecutive games.

Throughout Johnson's tenure, the offensive results have been significant. The Yellow Jackets have averaged 34.1 points per game. Such success is the highest in program history; Chan Gailey (22.4), George O'Leary (28.9), Bill Lewis (21.6), Bobby Ross (22.9), Bill Curry (19.6), Pepper Rodgers (20.5), Bill Fulcher (20.7), Bud Carson (16.1), Bobby Dodd (18.7), William Alexander (16.0), John Heisman (27.9), John McKee (8.0), Dr. Cyrus W. Strickler (19.4), Harris T. Collier (1.2), Rufus B. Nalley (2.0), Leonard Wood/Frank O. Spain (5.4), E.E. West (5.3).  

Currently, Georgia Tech leads the nation in rushing by a wide margin, with 392.7 yards per game; the last team to finish a season close to that mark is 1997 Nebraska at 392.6. Though there are some situational limitations as there are with any offense, the concept of the triple-option attack, big picture, is working. It's other areas of the game and the details where the Yellow Jackets are struggling most.

Georgia Tech is the third-worst team in the country in kickoff coverage and is the only special teams unit to have allowed two kick returns for touchdown, perhaps the reason why the Yellow Jackets lost to South Florida. Defensively, a Georgia Tech unit in understandable transition under new coordinator Nate Woody slots 107th in redzone touchdown defense, 106th in tackles for loss and 104th in sacks. Offensively, the Yellow Jackets rank 122nd nationally in turnovers lost and are 116th in redzone scoring. 

Hindsight is always 20-20, but, in Georgia Tech's loss at Pitt, an early fake punt decision proved costly. After a failed run from the Yellow Jackets' 28-yard line, the Panthers scored a touchdown three plays later to push the home margin to 14-0. In the first half alone, Georgia Tech failed to convert on a 4th down from just outside the Pitt redzone and missed a long field goal; the end result was a rare scoreless first two quarters. Missed opportunities like those compound existing problems.   

Though still moving the football, the Yellow Jackets, overall, currently seem somewhat out of sync. 

Ready or not, the Yellow Jackets will step into the national spotlight this weekend as they welcome 2nd-ranked Clemson to Atlanta Saturday afternoon. Georgia Tech has lost three in a row in the series, but is the last team not named Alabama to beat the Tigers by more than one score, an impressive 28-6 triumph in 2014. Clemson's all-world defensive front will be a major test once again; the last three years, the Yellow Jackets have compiled just 198, 95 and 71 rushing yards, respectively.

If Georgia Tech loses to the Tigers, Paul Johnson will drop to 1-3 for the first time in his career since 2002 with Navy, his debut season as an FBS head coach. The last time the Yellow Jackets were 1-3 was 2003. Furthermore, after upcoming tilts with Clemson and Bowling Green, four of Georgia Tech's final seven games are away from home. The Yellow Jackets have lost six straight road games. 

Johnson is one of college football's most-accomplished leaders. His 183 career victories rank fourth amongst active FBS head coaches, behind only Brian Kelly, Nick Saban and Bill Snyder. Johnson won two FCS national championships at Georgia Southern and helped take Navy to modern-day new heights. A three-time ACC Coach of the Year, Johnson has led Georgia Tech to four conference championship games. The Yellow Jackets won the Orange Bowl in 2014. 

Amidst all of the hot seat talk, there is still plenty of time for Johnson and Georgia Tech to turn this season around. Obviously, an upset on Saturday would be a game-changer for the Yellow Jackets. Results aside, even, there are a number of different narratives being discussed. Tied as the ACC's longest-tenured head coach, perhaps his time has simply grown stale? You do not see many coaches go past the decade-mark at the same job. That said, maybe recent struggles have just been part of the game's natural ebb and flow and a bounce-back is coming. Only time will tell. 

All throughout Johnson's career at Georgia Tech, many have focused on his triple-option offensive scheme. There, the results largely continue to come. Elsewhere, following a frustrating start, remains to be seen.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports