A storied coaching career will come to an end at the Quick Lane Bowl. Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson has announced his retirement effective after his Yellow Jackets take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers. With Johnson’s exit from the coaching ranks, three of the top-five winningest coaches in FBS history are calling it quits this year in Johnson, Bill Snyder, and Urban Meyer.
Johnson has coached for 40 years, including stops at Georgia Southern, Navy, and, of course, Georgia Tech. The 61-year-old has been an integral figure in preserving the triple-option offense. He’s spent 11 years at Georgia Tech.
His departure creates a very interesting situation in Atlanta. These players have been hand-picked to run the option. If Georgia Tech moves in a different direction to a more conventional offense, as is the rumor, then there will be a lot of transfers. For the non-grad transfers, that means a year out of football or a drop-down to the JUCO ranks. Between that and Johnson’s retirement, there won’t be many more motivated teams this bowl season than the Yellow Jackets, who are favored by four over Minnesota.
PJ Fleck has taken the SS Minnesota and rowed it into a bowl game in just his second season. The Golden Gophers should be plenty excited to get back after a one-year hiatus from the bowl season. A trip to Detroit isn’t very exciting, relative to other bowl destinations, but Fleck is a positive, energetic guy.
That’s important because the prep period against the triple-option is the most important factor in this game. As good as Paul Johnson is and has been, the Yellow Jackets are just 3-5 in bowl games on his watch and he is only 5-7 overall. Facing the triple-option is much tougher with just 4-5 days to prepare as opposed to multiple weeks. As long as the opponent is focused, and Minnesota should be, it gets easier to neutralize that style of play.
The problem for Fleck and interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi is that the Golden Gophers were gashed by the run all season long. Minnesota ranked 118th in the country in yards per play allowed against the run. The Gophers defense was so bad that it got DC Robb Smith fired after allowing a bazillion points to Illinois.
To make matters worse, offensive efficiency is very important against option teams. There are a limited number of possessions and that means that you have to be in tip-top shape with the football to take advantage. The Minnesota offense didn’t take advantage of much this season. The Gophers were 73rd nationally in yards per play and spent most of the season trying to figure out who would play quarterback.
The QB position is the most important on the field and it was a cloudy picture for Fleck and second-year OC Kirk Ciarrocca. IMG Academy product Zack Annexstad won the job, but he didn’t impress any more than Tanner Morgan during the season. In fact, Morgan had a 59 percent completion percentage compared to 51.9 percent for Annexstad and over two yards more per attempt. There was no discernible FBS experience at the position for the Gophers, so they had to rely heavily on the running game. Opposing teams knew that, so the Gophers were held to 4.1 yards per carry. Mohamed Ibrahim needs 64 yards to be a 1,000-yard rusher and the freshman has gone over that mark in each of his last four games.
It felt like Georgia Tech was a much more explosive offense with Tobias Oliver at the helm, but once TaQuon Marshall was healthy enough to have his job back, he became the feature guy. Oliver has still played a huge role with 807 yards on 143 carries and he leads the team with 12 rushing scores. Marshall is the slightly more polished passer and the leading rusher, but we should see both guys. A jump from 5.3 yards per carry to 5.7 yards per carry is a big reason why Georgia Tech is in a bowl game this year after missing one last year and also in 2015.
The Tech defense hasn’t been great again this year, The 5.9 yards per play allowed are actually the most for this defense since the 2009 season when the Yellow Jackets allowed 6.07 yards per play. The Tech defense has been worse against the pass this season than last season, but the team’s run defense has stayed about the same. That seems relevant against a Minnesota team that has to cherish and value each and every possession, so the ball is likely to stay on the ground.
Quick Lane Bowl Free Pick: Under 61
Neither run defense is all that good, but this game could be over in 2.5 hours with the amount of running that we should see. There isn’t a lot of incentive for Fleck and Ciarrocco to air it out on this Georgia Tech defense because the possibility for turnovers is too high and possessions will be like gold in this game.
The side is tough to figure out. The triple-option loses some of its effectiveness with the long prep period, but Georgia Tech is definitely the better team. Stick with the under and see if a live betting opportunity presents itself if the Gophers are having problems getting stops.