The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets took a liking to the national stage last football season.
The Jackets had plenty of spectators for its final two games of the 2014 campaign, garnering nearly 9 million viewers for its 49-34 Orange Bowl win over Mississippi State, making it the fifth highest-rated bowl game of the postseason. They also drew more than 10 million viewers for their 37-35 loss to Florida State in the ACC championship game, 40 percent more than the number of people watching the Big 10 title clash.
But the biggest numbers for coach Paul Johnson and his Jackets were the 11 wins and the No. 8 ranking in the polls to end the year. It’s put the Jackets— picked last year to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal — in a rare position. They’re now the odds-on favorite to win the division this time.
“We talk about being relevant,” said senior offensive lineman Errin Joe. “We came in with a chip on our shoulder. We always play that way. Especially when we’re rolling, we can play on this national stage. That just boosted the morale of the team. Whoever we face, we have this attitude we can play with the best team.”
The Jackets scratched out wins over Tulane and Georgia Southern, rallying to knock off the Eagles after blowing a 25-point halftime lead in the teams’ first meeting and Virginia Tech. They downed Miami to go to 5-0. But they dropped consecutive decisions to Duke and North Carolina.
“We started the season strong,” said senior defensive tackle Adam Gotsis. “When we lost to Duke and North Carolina, we felt we lost because we played badly. It wasn’t ‘they outplayed us.’ We came together and we knew to turn this around it was going to take everyone. It can’t be one individual doing it all.”
At 5-2 and 2-2 in the conference, the Jackets appeared to have little chance of making the conference championship game. But they reeled off five straight wins to end the regular season, including dramatic 30-24 overtime win at Georgia that did nothing for its conference championship hopes — but so much for so many other aspects.
“That was a huge game for our season and a huge game for our school,” said Gotsis, who blocked a field goal in regulation. “It’s been a while since we’ve had a big win there. It was good to see the fans jump on the bandwagon and get back behind us. That’s one thing we love, is seeing the fan base grow. One thing we can be proud of is how loyal our fans and how good they are to us.”
D.J. White’s interception in overtime set off a raucous celebration on the Yellow Jackets’ sidelines, not long after they rejoiced in Harrison Butker’s game-tying 53-yard field goal on the final play of regulation.
“It all went blank for a quick second. ‘Did that happen?’” Gotsis said of the game-ending play. “It was just an awesome feeling. It felt like we finally got to the top of the mountain.”
The win over Georgia snapped a five-game losing streak to the in-state rivals. The Jackets also put an end to skids against Virginia Tech and Miami and got a measure of revenge against Clemson. For the first time since Virginia Tech and Miami joined the ACC, the Jackets posted wins against each of the “big four” — Virginia Tech, Miami, Clemson and Georgia.
The players, though, don’t differentiate the wins by scale of importance. To them, they’re all equally important. But they also wanted to reverse recent trends against some of their biggest rivals.
“We don’t see it as a big four,” Gotsis said. “We haven’t been too good against Clemson the past few years. We haven’t been real good against Miami the past few years. We let them slip away in certain games. Virginia Tech, as well. This year, it was just, we’re not losing this games. We have too much riding on it to lose. It was the mindset we had all season long. We put in the work. It’s there. We have to go take it.”
Joe and Gotsis also said it was more than Xs and Os that spurred the Jackets to one of their best seasons in recent memory. The groundwork for an 11-3 record and an Orange Bowl championship was laid before official practices got under way.
The Jackets were coming off 7-7 and 7-6 seasons, and the players wanted to climb off that plateau.
“I attribute it to the attitude we had,” Joe said. “Coming off the season before, we had a team meeting. We said this is not Georgia Tech football. We rallied around each other. I think that’s what really propelled us to the success, just rallying around each other and pushing each other. I think you could tell by the way we played how close-knit we were and how tight we were. We’re definitely excited about bringing that mentality to next season.”
Tech also forged its first double-digit win total since 2009 and just its third in the last 17 seasons. And it came about thanks to a 3-1 stretch at the end of season against No. 19-ranked Clemson, No. 9 Georgia, No. 4 Florida State and No. 7 Mississippi State.
“It was all about the team,” Gotsis said. “We had a great bunch of guys who accomplished something that hadn’t been in a while at Georgia Tech. That was something special in itself. I feel we gave life back to Georgia Tech in a way. You’ve seen the fan base grow immensely, and that’s just awesome.”
Added Joe: “It was accountability. We trusted in each other. We held ourselves up to a certain standard. You don’t realize how far that goes until you win those big games. It’s easy to do when things are easy. But when times are tough, are you going to push your teammates to another level?”
Though the Jackets had never finished lower than third in the Coastal Division since Johnson’s arrival prior to the 2008 season, getting picked to finish fifth gave the Jackets a chip on the shoulder to play. This year, they’ve been chosen as the favorite in the division.
“I think it was just everyone writing us off from the very start,” Gotsis said, “‘we’re weak here, we’re weak there. Defense isn’t worth anything, offense isn’t going to do anything.’ There’s only so much you listen to, and you block it out. We blocked out everything. We had trust in ourselves. We had trust in our coaches and trust in ourselves.”