ATLANTA — Tennessee hasn’t played Georgia Tech since 1987, but the schools were once rivals before the Yellow Jackets left the SEC after the 1963 season.
Times have changed, but the teams are likely to pick up the intensity where they left off when they take the stage at 8 p.m ET on Monday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The No. 25-ranked Vols have received plenty of preseason attention, with coach Butch Jones managing a highly-publicized quarterback competition as he enters his fifth season.
The Yellow Jackets, like Tennessee, have a quarterback situation of their own.
Georgia Tech beat writer Ken Sugiura of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution took time out for SEC Country to answer five key questions about the Yellow Jackets:
1. What is vibe at Georgia Tech over this game? Is it like a bowl, bigger? Biggest regular season nonconference game since …. ?
Ken: It’s a big game, for sure. First game, an SEC opponent, new stadium, national TV on a Monday night. I think players and fans would be excited for the start of the season regardless, but all the other factors crank it up a good bit. I think it’s a different feel than a bowl, in that with a bowl game, there’s already so much that’s happened and it’s more of a celebration, maybe. But, regardless, players and fans are pretty fired up to play Tennessee. I don’t know that UT is a giant these days, but it’s a name brand, and playing the Volunteers means something more than, say, Vanderbilt or Kentucky, whom Tech played last year.
It won’t surpass playing Georgia, though. As far as biggest regular-season nonconference game other than Georgia, I think the last one bigger was Notre Dame in 2015. Both teams were ranked, it was the first game against the Irish since 2007.
2. How many options do the Yellow Jackets have at quarterback, and how many of them do you expect to play Monday night?
Ken: I suppose officially, the answer is four — juniors Matthew Jordan and TaQuon Marshall and redshirt freshmen Lucas Johnson and Jay Jones. I’d think you’ll see either Jordan or Marshall start and maybe one other. Paul Johnson keeps joking that he’s going to send in the plays with the quarterbacks (Johnson sends in the play from the sideline rather than signaling it in). He has said many times that he could call a game for all four. He’s largely been a one-quarterback guy, though. I think as long as the starter is doing the job, he’ll stay in.
3. The Yellow Jackets defense has several upperclassmen listed in the starting lineup, so just how salty is this group? Is it fair to say this is a bend-but-don’t-break defense?
Ken: I hate to waffle on this, but I think we’re about to find out. There’s definitely a lot of experience. All five defensive backs are returning starters, for instance. But the numbers for Tech weren’t great on defense. The Jackets’ third-down rate last year (49.2 percent) was third [worst] in FBS. Quite related, Tech averaged 1.39 sacks per game, 114th in FBS. The Jackets forced only 19 turnovers, tied for 67th.
However, the unit finished the season really well as Tech won its final four games, including wins over Virginia Tech, Georgia and Kentucky. The Jackets had 10 of their 19 takeaways in that span, for instance. In that time, defensive coordinator Ted Roof reduced the game plan and consulted more with the players to make sure they were comfortable running what he was calling. I suspect that will carry forward into this season, and so if that group shows up, it could be an aggressive, big-play group.
But, there’s questions about the pass rush — the leading sacker last year was a defensive tackle, since graduated — and the defensive tackles are inexperienced and relatively light. This isn’t a rocket-science observation, but I suspect Tennessee will try to run plenty with John Kelly and count on its pocket protection to hold up.
4. Butch Jones emphasizes special teams, so how good is Georgia Tech when it comes to these specialty units? Strengths, weaknesses?
Ken: Kickoff and punt return are safe and dependable more than spectacular, and both returners are back. Knoxville’s Nathan Cottrell, who has legit 4.4 speed, may return kicks. The kickoff- and punt-cover teams will be different because of new specialists in place. Last year, Tech had an automatic touchback guy in Harrison Butker, now trying to make the Carolina Panthers roster. The replacement, either Brenton King or Shawn Davis, can’t be expected to be anywhere as consistent, so we’ll see how Tech can cover. Johnson said that was more of a concern to him than the placekicking. Tech does appear to have a very good punter in Pressley Harvin, a freshman who won a national, invitation-only camp two years in a row.
5. What do you expect the crowd to be like, in terms of the split? We know the Yellow Jackets sold at least 33,500. Tennessee’s athletic director keeps saying he expects more orange than gold (or white) in the stadium — do you agree?
Ken: I’d think it’ll be close to even, or at least not so different that it makes much difference. I think Tech’s allotment finished at 35,000, which is a little less than half of capacity, and I wouldn’t think many of those were bought with the intention of reselling. I believe Tennessee finished at somewhere a little under 30,000. The rest are going to sponsors and club-seat holders, who likely will be split. So maybe a few more Tech fans, but probably not to an appreciable degree. The gold/white thing is funny, though. A frustration among Tech fans is that team apparel is made in white, navy and various shades of yellow and gold, so there’s not always a unified look in the stands. The school just went with adidas to be its next apparel partner (ditching the dreaded Russell Athletic) and a first priority is determining one gold for the athletic department for uniforms and apparel.