ATLANTA — Paul Johnson didn't know what to expect when making his debut as Georgia Tech's coach in 2008.
As it turned out, Johnson inherited some pretty good talent from former coach Chan Gailey, including four players — Demaryius Thomas, Jonathan Dwyer, Derrick Morgan and Morgan Burnett — who helped lead the Yellow Jackets to the 2009 ACC championship before entering the 2010 NFL draft as juniors.
Some Georgia Tech fans may be wary of the possibility of a dropoff from last year's 11-3 finish entering today's opener against South Carolina State. After all, Thomas, Dwyer, Morgan and Burnett led the team in receiving, rushing, sacks and interceptions, respectively.
Johnson sounded anything but wary as he compared his No. 16 Georgia Tech team with the 2008 team.
"We're a lot better football team. A lot," Johnson said this week. "I had no idea two years ago ... what we were going to see. I've got a pretty good idea, I think, what we'll see on Saturday.
"But I've got to see it."
Johnson may need more than one game to have his beliefs about his team confirmed. It may be difficult to evaluate the Yellow Jackets based on the opener, even though South Carolina State is an elite FCS team.
South Carolina State finished 10-2 last year and won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship before losing to Appalachian State in the FCS playoffs.
"Certainly they have some guys who could play at Georgia Tech, I don't think there's any doubt about that," Johnson said.
"The more tape I watch, the more impressed I am with them. I think they've got a good plan. They've got some really good individual players and they play well together as a team. I'm sure they're coming in here with a mindset they're coming in here to get a win in Atlanta."
Two Atlantic Coast Conference teams, Virginia and Duke, lost to FCS teams — William & Mary and Richmond, respectively — a year ago.
"We haven't talked about FCS or FBS; we just have talked about South Carolina State," Johnson said. "We just have to worry about Georgia Tech, and we know if we don't go out and play well they are very capable of beating us. Hopefully we will go out and play our A game. Hopefully that will be good enough."
South Carolina State lost at South Carolina 38-14 last season. Then-No. 23 Clemson beat the Bulldogs 54-0 in 2008.
"This is the fourth straight year that we have played a major school," said South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough. "I'd like to think we have made some strides."
Johnson said South Carolina State "has kind of dominated their conference the last few years."
"You don't win 20 games in the past two years without having some good players and knowing what you are doing," Johnson said. "They have a good program, so we are preparing for this no different than any game we have ever prepared for."
South Carolina State is led by senior Malcolm Long, who passed for more than 2,500 yards last year. The offensive line returns every starter, but the Bulldogs lost their top three receivers and Will Ford, the MEAC's all-time leading career rusher with 4,660 yards.
Georgia Tech also is led by a senior quarterback. The school this week unveiled a website to promote Joshua Nesbitt as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Nesbitt, who often keeps the ball on short-yardage and fourth-down plays, ran for 18 touchdowns in 2009.
Anthony Allen will take over from Dwyer as the lead runner in Johnson's spread option offense. Allen averaged almost 10 yards per carry a year ago and could thrive in his first opportunity to be the top threat.
This will be the debut of new defensive coordinator Al Groh's 3-4 scheme at Georgia Tech. Groh, fired as Virginia's coach last year, was hired to revamp a Georgia Tech defense that gave up 30 or more points in six games last season, including a 30-24 home loss to in-state rival Georgia to end the regular season.
Johnson fired former defensive coordinator Dave Wommack after the Yellow Jackets' 24-14 Orange Bowl loss to Iowa.
"We won't know about our defense probably until we've played two or three games," Johnson said. "I think they're excited. I think they'll fly around. The big thing to me is can they not have a lot of (missed) mental assignments. Will they continue to play hard?"