RALEIGH, N.C. — The question followed Paul Johnson ever since Georgia Tech hired him: Would his spread-option offense work at the highest level of college football?
It certainly clicked well enough in his first year to bring him a coaching honor.
Johnson was named the Atlantic Coast Conference coach of the year Tuesday following a regular season in which his players picked up enough of his complex system to share the league lead in wins, remain in contention for the ACC title for longer than anybody expected and, perhaps most surprisingly, knock off their top instate rival.
"I think it speaks volumes for our coaching staff and players," Johnson said. "Any time you win an award like that, it means that they've done a great job. Certainly, there are a lot of great coaches in the ACC, so I'm humbled, having the chance to win the award. You accept it on behalf of the whole football program, because they're the reason we had a chance to win it."
Johnson received 46 of a possible 67 votes from members of the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association. Boston College's Jeff Jagodzinski was second with 12 votes, followed by Duke's David Cutcliffe (4). Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer and North Carolina's Butch Davis had two votes apiece, and North Carolina State's Tom O'Brien had one vote.
Johnson became the fifth Georgia Tech coach to win the league's coaching award — and first since George O'Leary in 2000 — after successfully installing the system that helped his Navy teams lead the nation in rushing for three straight years. He changed the terminology, dropping "tailbacks" and "fullbacks" for "A-backs" and "B-backs."
Expectations were low, at least from the outside. The Yellow Jackets were the preseason pick to finish fourth in the Coastal Division.
"It was like anything else with a transition — you go into a new job, you're changing the culture a little bit and changing the habits, but our guys bought in once we started in the spring," Johnson said. "They realized that if we executed properly, we had a chance to be successful. They never really wavered a whole lot."
As a result, Johnson's team brought a level of consistent performance to a conference that spent the season seemingly lacking in that quality. Georgia Tech finished 9-3 — matching Boston College's league-best record — went 5-3 in league play and joined Florida State as the only ACC teams that didn't lose consecutive games all season.
The Yellow Jackets led the league in both total offense and rushing offense while finishing third nationally in the run game with an average of 282.3 yards. They produced the ACC's top rusher — Jonathan Dwyer, who finished with an average of 110.7 yards and was the only player in the league to average 100 yards on the ground.
And they saved their best performances for the end of the season, stifling Miami 41-23 to all but knock the Hurricanes out of Coastal Division contention before stunning Georgia 45-42 between the hedges for their first victory over the Bulldogs since 2000.
"I expected our team to get better every week," Johnson said. "The last three, four games, I just wanted them to get better and be consistent, learn to play hard, and for the most part, they did. There was a blip or two that we didn't show up, got beat up a little bit, and there was a game or two we didn't play as well as we liked, but all in all, they rallied pretty good."