ATLANTA — Not so long ago, Georgia Tech was being touted as one of the top teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference and maybe even a dark horse in the national race.
Now, going in as an underdog Saturday at No. 6 Clemson, the Yellow Jackets are trying to avoid their first four-game losing streak since 1996.
“Nobody expected us to be here,” quarterback Justin Thomas said. “I didn’t. The team didn’t. But we put ourselves in this hole. Now, we’ve got to dig ourselves out of it.”
Georgia Tech went 11-3 last season, earning a spot in the ACC title game and blowing out Southeastern Conference powerhouse Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.
Not surprisingly, expectations were high coming into 2015, with some heavy losses on the offensive side — every skill-position starter except for Thomas had to be replaced — expected to be offset by an experienced defense that was eager to make its mark.
When the Yellow Jackets blew out their first two opponents, beating FCS school Alcorn State 69-6 and Tulane 65-10, they were actually favored going into a game at Notre Dame.
That’s where things started to go wrong.
Even breaking in a new starting quarterback, the Fighting Irish pushed out to a commanding lead before holding on for a 30-22 victory, the score much closer than it really was because Georgia Tech scored a pair of touchdowns in the final minute. The following week, the Yellow Jackets fell into another deep hole during the first quarter and lost 34-20 at Duke.
Then, the most discouraging setback of all. The Yellow Jackets frittered away a 21-0 lead at home and fell to North Carolina 38-31 last week.
Now, heading into one of the toughest places to play in the ACC, there is no longer any margin for error if Georgia Tech hopes to remain a contender in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
An 0-3 start in conference play would be devastating.
“It’s still early in the season,” Thomas said. “You never know what can happen throughout the season. We’ve just got to go out there and play as hard as we can and get it turned around.”
A plethora of injuries, especially at A-back, have made things tough on the Yellow Jackets. Broderick Snoddy and TaQuon Marshall didn’t play against the Tar Heels because of hand injuries. Qua Searcy is out for an extended period with a broken leg.
Former walk-on Isiah Willis and redshirt freshman Clinton Lynch started last week. Another former walk-on, Austin McClellan, was one of the top backups. The Yellow Jackets are so strapped for depth at the key position, they moved defensive back Lynn Griffin over to offense. With only a week of practice, he actually got in for a handful of plays.
“It’s just been one of those years,” coach Paul Johnson said. “Last year, the offense was good enough to carry the team. This year, it’s not. I don’t know if the defense is good enough to carry the team. And the special teams are certainly doing nothing to carry the team.”
Georgia Tech’s slump has caught others off guard.
“I honestly don’t know why they’re struggling,” Clemson safety Jayron Kearse said. “I mean, Georgia Tech’s a good football team. They have some good athletes. Coach Paul Johnson’s a great coach.”
If there’s a reason for hope, the Yellow Jackets can look back to last season, when they also lost back-to-back games against Duke and North Carolina. They recovered from that slump to win six of the last seven games, the only setback a 37-35 loss to Florida State in the ACC championship game.
“Nobody is feeling sorry for themselves,” Thomas said. “We know what we have to do.”
Kearse insisted the Tigers won’t be taking Georgia Tech lightly, especially after what happened a year ago when the Yellow Jackets romped to a 28-6 victory in Atlanta.
“It really doesn’t matter they lost three games,” he said. “We know they’re a good football team. We know what they’re capable of and if we don’t do our job, we know the end result can be bad for us.”