ATLANTA — So much for being the scrappy underdog with the throwback running game.
At Georgia Tech, the expectations these days are much higher.
After a trip to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and a victory in the Orange Bowl, the 16th-ranked Yellow Jackets open the season Thursday night by hosting lower-division school Alcorn State, a game that most expect to be little more than a warmup for the tougher contests to come.
“We can go out and start developing our identity as a team,” coach Paul Johnson said Monday.
Georgia Tech has 13 returning starters, most notably quarterback Justin Thomas, the MVP of a 49-34 win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.
Johnson said he hasn’t thought about how much Thomas or the other starters might play against Alcorn State, pointing out that the Yellow Jackets struggled in their 2014 opener against another Football Championship Subdivision opponent, Wofford, before pulling away in the second half.
With Alcorn State coming off a 10-win season and its first Southwestern Athletic Conference title since 1993, Johnson said he’s not assuming the Yellow Jackets will race out to a big lead, giving the backups a chance for plenty of playing time.
“I hope I have that problem. Then I can figure it out,” said Johnson, who agreed to a new contract late last season that runs through 2020. “We’re just trying to go out, play well, and win the game. That’s my focus.”
Georgia Tech goes into the first game with its highest preseason ranking since 2010.
No longer are there questions about Johnson’s option offense, which led the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing last season with a school-record 342.1 yards per game.
While he’s always been a bit feisty when called on to defend his unorthodox scheme, Johnson insisted that he’s never tried to portray his team in a David-vs.-Goliath mold or used the skeptics as a motivational tool.
“I’m going to coach the same way I did every other year,” he said. “I think more is made of that than there actually was. It’s not like every game we went into the locker room saying no one thinks we can win, we’re not worth a crap, and we’ve got to fight for respect. We just kind of approach the game and play. This hasn’t been any different.”
He added, “I’ve not heard one kid or one coach talk about being ranked. If you start talking about it, you won’t be there for long.”
At this time a year ago, Johnson was under a bit of fire after going 28-25 over the previous four seasons. Now, he’s being asked if the Yellow Jackets are positioned to maintain a sustained level of success in a state where they’ve generally played second-fiddle to the Georgia Bulldogs, the Southeastern Conference powerhouse that dominates the local fan base.
“We go into the season trying to beat Alcorn and Georgia and everyone in between,” Johnson said. “Each team is different. I don’t know if you ever get to a point where you just reload, where you’ve got players falling out of windows, where as soon as one guys goes there’s six more All-Americans ready to step in. But if you ask anybody on our team, their goal is to win all the games.”
Though Georgia Tech starts out with what should be a win, the rest of the schedule looks rather imposing. Four opponents are also in The Associated Press rankings: No. 9 Georgia, No. 10 Florida State, No. 11 Notre Dame and No. 12 Clemson.
“I was just looking at some of the out-of-conference games for other teams before I came down here,” Johnson said, without getting specific. “Wow, we certainly don’t have to apologize for ours.”