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Notre Dame Football 2015 Off-Season Preview: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

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Triple option noooooooooooo.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS

2014 Record: 11-3

F/+ Rank: 8

Wins: Wofford, Tulane, Georgia Southern, Virginia Tech, Miami, Pitt, Virginia, NC State, Clemson, Georgia, Miss State

Losses: Duke, North Carolina, Florida State

~~~

Season Recap

Nothing about Tech's early season performances signaled the type of season they'd have last fall. A field goal as time expired in the first half grabbed a 1-point lead over Wofford before the Yellow Jackets ran away with it against Sagarin's 146th ranked team. They also trailed late in the second quarter against Tulane (142nd rank by Sagarin) before shutting down the Green Wave in the second half. Getting a taste of their own triple option medicine against better-than-you-think Georgia Southern (9-3 record, 63rd rank by Sagarin) they blew a 35-10 lead and needed a touchdown pass with 0:23 left to escape with a win.

Tech began ACC play trailing the Hokies on the road in the 4th quarter but would come back and win with a field goal as time expired. They were tied with Miami at the half but again played well enough in the second half to win by 11 points. At this point, the Jackets were 5-0 and ranked only No. 22 in the country.

Tech then lost back-to-back games to Duke and North Carolina before ripping off 5 straight wins to close out the regular season, including an impressive 28-6 defeat of Clemson and a crazy overtime win over Georgia--their first win over the Bulldogs since 2008.

Florida State had a tough time dealing with the Yellow Jackets and just barely stayed undefeated in the ACC Championship. A 3 touchdown third quarter led Georgia Tech to a 15-point bowl win over Mississippi State to finish 11-3 on the season.

Series: 27-6-1 Notre Dame

This matchup used to be much more of  a grudge match before the 1980's rolled around as 30 out of the series' 34 games were played from 1922 until 1981.

Notre Dame opened the season down in Atlanta to begin the 2006 season while gutting out a close 14-10 win. The next season the Irish again opened the season against Tech, this time in South Bend, and immediately showed the world that the team was not ready to field a competent offense, losing 33-3.

Coach Resume: Paul Johnson (58-35, 8th Year, 165-74 Overall)

Johnson has won a lot of football games--only Bob Stoops, Nick Saban, Brian Kelly, Steve Spurrier, Bill Snyder, Frank Beamer, Gary Pinkel, and Dennis Franchione have more overall victories among active head coaches.

He went 62-10 at Georgia Southern to start his career, including 2 National Championships. From there, Johnson spent 6 years at Navy where he famously defeated Notre Dame in 2007, our first loss in the series since 1963.

Johnson got off to a hot start in Atlanta (19-7 over his first 2 seasons) but fell into a bit of a funk recently going 28-25 from 2010 to 2013. The Orange Bowl win over Miss State was the first major bowl win for the program since 1955.

Returning Starters: 14 Total (6 Offense, 8 Defense)

Tech lost a ton of ball carriers from 2014 but otherwise are in pretty good shape bringing back the bulk of their starters from an 11-win season.

Linemen Situation

The Yellow Jackets only lose 1 full-time starter from the offensive line as right guard Shaquille Mason was taken in the 4th round of the NFL Draft by the Patriots. Fifth-year senior left tackle Bryan Chamberlain made 13 starts last year, missed the end of spring with an injury, and is moving to left guard. Either redshirt sophomore Eason Fromayan (1 start) or redshirt freshman Trey Klock will start on the left edge.

Fifth-year senior Trey Braun made every start at left guard and is moving to the right guard spot vacated by Mason. Redshirt sophomore Shamire Devine is expected to win the job at left guard. Filling out the line is redshirt junior Freddie Burden who started every game at center, plus 5th-year senior Errin Joe who started the final 7 games at right tackle in 2014. Redshirt sophomore Chris Griffin started the first 7 games at RT but will miss the 2015 season with a knee injury.

Defensive tackle Shawn Green (14 starts, 27 tackles, 4.5 TFL) is the only significant loss up front on the other side of the ball. Rising sophomore KeShun Freeman was a freshman All-American at end totaling 9.5 TFL and 4.5 sacks last year to go with 12 starts. Redshirt junior Roderick Rook-Chungong (2.5 TFL) made 6 starts at end, and redshirt junior Tyler Stargel (2 starts) and sophomore Tyler Merriweather provide depth.

On the interior senior Adam Gotsis returns after starting every game at NT while totaling 6.5 TFL and 3 sacks. He looks to be backed up by redshirt junior Kenderius Whitehead. Redshirt junior Patrick Gamble (25 tackles) made 4 starts last year and looks to move into a full time starting role. Fifth-year senior Jabari Hunt-Days is moving from linebacker where he made 11.5 TFL from 2012-13 before missing last fall due to academics and impressed during the spring.

Returning Quarterback: Yes

Redshirt junior Justin Thomas rose to the starting job last fall replacing Vad Lee who was Tech's starter for a year and a half prior to transferring to James Madison for spring 2014. Thomas certainly excelled on the ground leading the Yellow Jackets in carries (190), yards (1,086), and coming in second with 8 touchdowns. He was also quite good as a passer in Georgia Tech's offense accumulating almost 123 yards per game with 18 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions with a healthy 9.2 yards/attempt.

Biggest Problem for 2015: Finding New Running Backs

Tech has to replace 6 running backs who started at least one game in 2014. Thomas brings back a big chunk as the leading rusher but the Yellow Jackets only return 610 rushing yards among other players for an offense that was approaching 5,000 yards in 2014. And a third of that 610 came from backup quarterback Tim Byerly. Having to replace 65% of your rushing in Paul Johnson's offense is kind of concerning.

Biggest Strength for 2015: Secondary

Strong safety Isaiah Johnson is gone after posting 12 starts and 72 tackles. The other 4 primary starters in Tech's 4-2-5 defense are back.

Fifth-year senior Chris Milton and senior D.J. White return at corner where they combined for 6 interceptions. Nickel back is manned by 5th-year senior Desmond Smith who finished third on the team with 73 tackles. Free safety welcomes back 5th-year senior Jamal Golden and his 61 tackles and 4 picks. Lots of veteran experience here.

Offensive Scheme: Flexbone

The Irish face Georgia Tech in week 3 and Navy in week 6. That's 2 triple option teams in 4 weeks. Can't wait.

4 Players to Remember

RB Broderick Snoddy, 5th Sr.- The lead returning A-back in Tech's offense with 283 yards and 3 scores last year. Snoddy broke both bones in his leg late in the season against Clemson and was just nearing full health when spring practice finished up.

RB Patrick Skov, 5th Sr.- The younger brother of the more famous former Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov. Transferred to Atlanta after 4 years of minimal playing time at Stanford. Will throw his hat in the ring to get minutes at Tech's fullback-esque B-back position.

RB Marcus Allen, RS Jr.- Converted from linebacker to B-back during the spring where the Yellow Jackets need bodies. Impressed at his new position and led the spring game with 77 rushing yards.

LB Paul Davis, Jr.- Tech's weak-side linebacker is one of the better players in the ACC at his position. Led the team with 119 tackles and totaled 8.5 TFL with 4 sacks.

Special Teams: 4/4

Harrison Butker is back as placekicker. He's a junior who has started since his freshman year and made 11 of 18 field goals in 2014. Redshirt junior Ryan Rodwell returns at punter.

Jamal Golden took most of the kick and punt returns, giving Tech most of their yardage back for this fall.

Uniforms: 3/10

Tech

Jason Getz, USA Today Sports

Russell has been manufacturing Tech's uniforms since 2008 without much success. The program usually wears white at home which means the blue jerseys only come out on occasion or during bowl games. Like Notre Dame, they have struggled with consistency in their gold and lately have settled on a pale sandstorm. These embarrassing honeycomb jerseys are now a thing of the past, however, their honeycomb white helmet lives on today. Overall, Tech's uniforms are generic with piping that is dated by nearly 2 decades. Sometimes the Yellow Jackets will pair white pants with their uniform or break out throwbacks, which like most throwbacks, are a million times nicer than their standard sets.

What's To Like About the Matchup

Tech has to replace a lot of rushing production and might not have it figured out by week three. They were just okay on defense and were one of the worst teams in surrendering yards per play. They caused a lot of turnovers last year and could see those numbers possibly move back to national averages.

What's Not To Like About the Matchup

The triple option is a pain. Tech has two scrimmages (Alcorn State and Tulane) prior to coming to South Bend, while the Irish will have played 2 major conference opponents. The Yellow Jackets should be strong on both lines with a talented quarterback. Paul Johnson wants to 'beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder' and will get that opportunity.

Opponent Power Ranking Based on Irish Schedule: 3rd Toughest

With what Georgia Tech is bringing back this could be the first time since 1951-52 that they go two consecutive seasons with double-digit wins. Looking at Tech's schedule, however, getting to 10 wins could be pretty difficult. They have road games at Notre Dame, Duke, Clemson, and Miami with home dates versus Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Georgia. They're trading a non-power 5 OOC team for Notre Dame, plus Florida State is now on the regular season slate when they weren't last year.

The lack of proven running backs is a big issue but there's really not much else to point to where they should regress in 2015. Even so, I'd imagine that finding runners in the flexbone isn't the most difficult thing for Paul Johnson to do--maybe our Georgia Tech brethren can chime in on this issue. The Yellow Jackets will rely on Snoddy at A-back plus a glut of freshmen, while B-back saw the likely starter in C.J. Leggett go out for the season with a torn ACL during spring.

Notre Dame better hope Tech takes a step back on offense as the Jackets were rated No. 1 in the country by FEI and No. 4 nationally by S&P. In comparison, the Navy offense that the Irish have struggled so much against was ranked 12th and 28th in those ratings last year. Any way you slice it the Bees offense was legit: 12th in scoring, 2nd in rushing per game, 6th in yards per rush, tied for 3rd in yards per passing attempt, and 9th in yards per play. They did lose 12 fumbles but that's about average for Johnson's offense. Cost of doing business--without half those fumbles Tech would have been 4th in the country in turnover ratio.

Forecasting the Tech defense is a little more tricky.

The advance stats suggest a pretty average unit--ranking 51st in FEI and 46th in S&P last year. They gave up 25.7 PPG (53rd), over 167 yards on the ground (64th), and a truly dreadful 6.32 yards per play (111th).

Clearly this was a feast or famine defense that in combination with their offense was able to get the job done most of the time. They forced 28 turnovers (t-17th) but play a stay-in-front-of-you defense that only produced 20 sacks (t-97th) and 61 tackles for loss (t-103rd). We talk about Notre Dame needing to improve in those negative plays, well Tech's was far worse at them in 2015.

They'll desperately try to prevent the big play--surrendering a respectable 25 plays of 30+ yards which was tied for 56th nationally--at the expense of teams consistently ripping healthy but not huge chunks as Tech ranked 113th in giving up plays of 10+ yards and 100th in plays of 20+ yards.

With 8 starters returning you should expect their defense to improve a little bit, at the very least. I know it's cliche but this game likely comes down to who kicks field goals and who scores touchdowns. Both offenses should be able to move the ball and set themselves up for points.

Notre Dame was terrible preventing touchdowns in the red zone, surrendering 35 total and finishing tied for 116th nationally in touchdown percentage. Georgia Tech, on the other hand, might have let a lot of teams move the ball but only gave up 28 red zone touchdowns out of 53 opportunities--finishing 26th nationally. That's huge for a triple option team.

This is such an important game for Notre Dame. A win may provide a 3-0 start which could be huge for Malik Zaire's and the teams' confidence. A loss puts a lot of pressure on the upcoming stretch a game later of Clemson, Navy, and USC with not much room for error in order to meet the lofty expectations for 2015.