ATLANTA — Michael Johnson wasn’t aware so many prognosticators thought so little of Georgia Tech in the preseason.
One national magazine predicted the Yellow Jackets would go 3-9 and manage only one victory in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Another went with 4-8 overall, 2-6 in the league.
"Oooh, was it that bad?" said Johnson, Georgia Tech’s star defensive end, after coming off the practice field Tuesday evening. "Aw man, I honestly didn’t know what the predictions were."
Well, he did know one. Coach Paul Johnson posted the projected ranking of all 119 major colleges in the locker room; the Yellow Jackets were 80th, even trailing perennial ACC back-marker Duke.
"It was kind of laughable to me," the player said. "None of that stuff really matters, but it’s funny sometimes to know what people think about you."
Those impressions sure have changed. Georgia Tech (6-1, 3-1 ACC) moved into the rankings for the first time this season at No. 21, the highest-rated team in its conference. With three of its last four ACC games at home, the Yellow Jackets suddenly look like the favorite in the Coastal Division.
Of course, heightened expectations can sometimes be a burden, so the coach pointedly reminded his players again Tuesday there’s still a lot of work to do. Heck, the Yellow Jackets are not even bowl eligible, since two of their wins have come against Football Championship Subdivision teams; only one counts toward postseason eligibility.
"We haven’t done anything yet," defensive tackle Darryl Richard said.
But there’s no doubt Georgia Tech is ahead of schedule in Paul Johnson’s first season, especially since he switched to an option-based spread offense that resembles throwback schemes such as the wishbone and veer.
As expected, the new offense has run into some speed bumps along the way. The spread looked unstoppable in a 38-7 rout of Mississippi State. It looked amateurish in a 10-7 squeaker against Gardner-Webb. Overall, the Yellow Jackets rank seventh in the ACC in scoring at 24.7 points a game.
The defense has picked up the slack, after getting little attention during the offseason. Georgia Tech leads the ACC in points allowed (11.6) and stands third in yards surrendered (254.6 per game).
While trying not to read too many headlines, the Yellow Jackets are well aware this is their best start since 1990, when they went unbeaten and shared the national championship with Colorado.
"It’s a lot different now," receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "We know people didn’t expect much from us. We had to go out and prove them wrong. But there’s still a lot of games to win, there’s still a lot of stuff to prove."
Georgia Tech hosts Virginia (4-3, 2-1) on Saturday, facing a team that has made a dramatic turnaround since losing three of its first four games by an average of 36 points. The Cavaliers haven’t lost since, knocking North Carolina out of the rankings with a 16-13 overtime win last week.
"It’s back to the drawing board for us," Michael Johnson said. "Our focus is all on the Virginia Cavaliers. We’ve got a hot team coming in."
Paul Johnson believes his team passed a major test of its own last weekend at Clemson. The Tigers went through a coaching change before the game and were eager to get a win for their new boss. The big crowd went nuts when the home side scored two touchdowns in the third quarter to take its first lead.
But Georgia Tech never got flustered, bouncing back on Josh Nesbitt’s 24-yard touchdown pass to Thomas with just over 51/2 minutes remaining for a 21-17 win.
"I am awfully proud of our football team," Johnson said. "Everyone realized that it was a pretty hostile environment and once things got going, their crowd really got into it. There were probably 80,000 people yelling and to our guys’ credit, they didn’t even flinch.
"I really didn’t see anybody panic on our sideline. Nobody thought that this thing was slipping away from us — players or coaches. We felt like we were going to win the game the whole time, and the players found a way to do it."
Georgia Tech’s fans have been slow to jump on the bandwagon, failing to sell out any of the first four home games at 55,000-seat Bobby Dodd Stadium.
"It would be great if we could have a packed house and a home-field advantage," Johnson said, looking ahead to Saturday. "We want to get the crowd involved and I know the players feed off of their energy."
Those who do show up will be cheering for a team that is just three points away from a perfect record. The Yellow Jackets’ only loss was a 20-17 setback at Virginia Tech.
"We should be 7-0," wingback Lucas Cox moaned. "Our goal is to win the ACC. It’s definitely still in our grasp. I think we’ve got a good chance to do it."