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Georgia Tech finding offensive and defensive extremes in 2014

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Despite losing some key contributors from 2013, Georgia Tech already has equaled its win total from a year ago. The Jackets rank 19th in the latest F/+ standings, a 15-spot improvement from last season, which is not at all what I'd have guessed for this team back in August. In the ACC, only Florida State, Miami, Louisville and Clemson rate ahead of the Jackets.

By now Paul Johnson's rightfully earned a lot of trust when it comes to his offenses, so even though the Jackets had to replace their top three rushers (included among them their top receiver) and starting quarterback, it was entirely reasonable to expect the team to overcome those losses.

They've not only done that, they've gotten better.

GT Offense Off. S&P+ (national rank) Yds/Play
(national rank)
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2014 122.2 (10)
6.8 (11) 5.9 (9) 9.8 (2)
2013 118.1 (21) 6.1 (35) 5.5 (11) 8.3 (20)

In terms of yards per play, it's the best offense of the Paul Johnson era. As it turns out, sometimes losing your starting quarterback to transfer is a blessing. Vad Lee struggled in 2013, completing 45.6% of his throws and compiling a 127.46 passer rating. The Jackets still got chunk yardage through the air--Lee averaged 8.7 yards per attempt--but they were making far too many mistakes. Lee threw 10 picks in 180 attempts, and that's an ugly INT%.

Enter Justin Thomas, who's been better across the board. Given that, it's not difficult to understand why the team has been more prolific. While Thomas is also completing less than half of his pass attempts, he is averaging 9.7 yards per attempt and has connected on 14 touchdown throws against four interceptions in 128 attempts. Tech threw one pick every 15.6 pass attempts on average in 2013, but that's down to 1-per-35.5 in 2014.

Thomas also has been more effective on the ground, leading the team with 721 yards rushing. Lee finished last season with 513 rushing yards, and he averaged a paltry 2.8 yards per carry, which is a stunningly low figure for a QB in this system. Thomas is averaging more than five yards per carry.

Thomas' favorite target is DeAndre Smelter, who is another one of those tall receivers that Paul Johnson seems to grow on trees. Smelter's breakout campaign is another reason the Yellow Jackets have been so successful moving the ball--with 569 yards on 24 grabs (23.7 yards per catch), he is producing like former standouts Demaryius Thomas and Stephen Hill.

So the offense is working just swimmingly behind the likes of Thomas and Smelter. The defense, however, has not been so fortunate. The Jackets are feeling the sting (ha ha get it) of personnel losses on this side of the ball, and their production in a few categories has dipped significantly.

GT Defense Def. S&P+ (national rank) Yds Allowed/Play
(national rank)
Yds Allowed/Rush
(national rank)
Yds Allowed/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2014 95.7 (82)
6.4 (115) 5.2 (111) 7.7 (106)
2013 104.0 (68) 5.5 (64) 3.6 (18) 7.4 (81)

The big name missing from this Tech defense is end/linebacker/all-around whirling destructo-dervish Jeremiah Attaochu, who was a second-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Attaochu led the Jackets in both sacks and tackles for loss from 2011-2013, finishing his career as the program's all-time sack leader.

The Jackets haven't been able to replace Attaochu's talent for blowing stuff up real good, be it individually or collectively. The defense's sack and tackle for loss rates are both down in 2014, the most obvious symptoms of a general lack of playmaking ability on the unit. On the offensive side, Johnson can mask his recruiting shortcomings with his system. Defensively, though, the system doesn't really matter--if you don't have the goods up front, you're going to get exposed more often than not.

And that's exactly what's happened to the Jackets this season, to a greater degree than usual. Tech's defenses under Johnson have ranked outside the top 50 in S&P+ more often than not--his best Tech defense ever (2012) ranked just 37th--but generally they've managed to be averagish, as they were last year. The 2014 version of the defense is the most vulnerable group they've had under Johnson, or damn close to it.

So far the team's offensive improvements and a jump from 86th in turnover margin to 12th have been sufficient to overcome their defensive shortcomings. It's likely safe to assume the Jackets will get their yardage against NC State on Saturday, but that doesn't have to mean defeat for the Wolfpack. If State's offense can take advantage of the best matchup its had in more than a month, the game easily could come down to a couple of plays in the margins.