Can Paul Johnson Succeed at Georgia Tech?

When I wrote out my ACC picks for this year, I noticed there was a high level of interest in Paul Johnson, the new Georgia Tech head coach. The question of whether his offense will work in the ACC has been a topic of discussion this offseason since it’s been a few years since we saw someone run the option exclusively in a BCS conference school.

The simple answer is: of course you can run an option offense in a BCS conference. I know it’s easy to forget after watching the Callahan experiment, but Nebraska won three national titles running the option out of the I formation in the 1990s. The 1995 Nebraska team is even considered to be one of the best ever. That wasn’t that long ago.

At this point, only smaller schools run exclusively option-based offenses. They don’t require the precision of passing offenses, and that helps when you don’t have top-flight quarterbacks and receivers coming in. However if you get top flight runners at quarterback and running back like the Huskers did, it can be very powerful.

There of course are differences between Tom Osborne’s option-I offense and Paul Johnson’s triple option from the flexbone. The basic concept though is basically the same: make the defense have to make one-on-one tackles.

That’s also the point of many of the spread offenses that are all the rage right now, and the spread option varieties often incorporate triple option from the flexbone in the base offense. If you have guys who can make people miss, it’s a tremendous advantage to force the one-on-one tackling scenarios. We’ve seen the power of that in recent years with players like Pat White and Percy Harvin.

The question right now is about Johnson’s offense specifically and not the option in general. It’s tricky to project what happened at Navy to a BCS conference because Navy doesn’t get BCS-level players. What we can do is take a look at how Johnson’s Midshipmen teams did against BCS conference teams and see how it compares to the averages those opponents allowed during the seasons in which they played.

The Numbers

In Johnson’s six seasons in Annapolis, he played 30 games against BCS opponents. They were about evenly split between teams that finished the seasons in which they played below .500 and at .500 or above. Just to be clear, “BCS opponents” refers to teams in a BCS conference at the time they played and Notre Dame.

Overall, his teams averaged 27.93 points and 400.33 yards of total offense against BCS opponents. Those opponents on average allowed 26.6 points per game and 371.5 yards per game. That suggests that Johnson’s offense was effective because despite being a mid-major, he averaged a point a game more and 29 yards more per game than the average opponent for those teams.

His squads scored more than the opponents gave up on average in 17 of the 30 games. They also gained more yards than the opponents gave up on average in 16 of the 30 games. Slightly more than half the time, they outperformed expectations.

Now, let’s look at the splits between home and away:

Paul Johnson at Navy
Site Wins Losses Totals
Home 4 10 14
Away 7 7 14
Bowls 0 2 2
Totals 11 19 30

This is not what one would expect, but remember that the rules are different when talking about a mid-major playing BCS opponents. The slate of teams that Navy played at home was more difficult, which gets magnified due to the divide in talent.

Now let’s take a look at the record by tier of opponent. As always, first-tier opponents are teams that had a winning percentage of .750 or better, second tier were .500 to .749, third tier opponents were .250 to .499, and fourth tier opponents were .249 and below.

Paul Johnson at Navy
Tier Wins Losses Pct.
First 0 6 .000
Second 0 7 .000
Third 4 5 .444
Fourth 7 1 .875

As we can see, none of his Navy teams beat a BCS opponent that finished the year at .500 or above. He was about 50-50 against the third tier, and nearly flawless against the bottom tier. The one loss to a fourth tier team was in his first year when his 2-10 Navy team lost to 2-10 Duke.

If you project the overall numbers into an eight-game conference schedule, that comes out to two or three conference wins a year. If you then win three or four non-conference games, that’s a five to seven win season and a bowl more often than not. Keep in mind that we’re talking about doing this with Navy’s players.

Here’s what his offense did against those tiers:

Paul Johnson at Navy
Tier Scored Expected Yards Expected
First 16.83 18.83 289.33 316.67
Second 20.00 24.71 350.71 370.00
Third 37.56 29.22 478.44 383.78
Fourth 32.38 31.13 439.13 400.13

It is somewhat odd that he did slightly better against the first tier than the second. Part of that discrepancy is skewed somewhat by a 14-point, 367-yard flop in Johnson’s first bowl game against second tier Texas Tech (who gave up 34 points and 453 yards a game) in 2003.

We also see that he did better against the third tier than the fourth. Part of that discrepancy is skewed somewhat by a couple of overtime games against third tier teams and a 605-yard explosion against third tier UConn (who gave up 358 yards a game) in 2006.

I don’t know enough about Navy to give you a complete answer on why it happened, so it’s just noted for being interested. Overall, his teams missed the averages given up by opponents that finished above .500 by 2.5 points and 23 yards a game. That shows that at least offensively, his Navy teams were competitive.

What about the other side of the ball?

You’ll notice that this discussion has entirely been about Paul Johnson’s offense. The question of whether it will work in a BCS conference was the issue on everyone’s minds. It’s worth it to mention defense though if we’re going to assess his overall prospects at Georgia Tech.

The defenses on Johnson’s teams were very inconsistent. That is not surprising since he can only get players who are able to get into the Naval Academy academically and are willing to join the Navy immediately after school. Add to that the fact that defense doesn’t have a scheme that equalizes things to the same degree that the option does for offense, and the lack of constancy is understandable.

They finished anywhere from the 20s to the triple digits in scoring defense during his time there. Despite the uncertainty he tied the school record for wins with ten in 2004, and in ’04 and ’05 he delivered the fifth and sixth bowl wins in school history.

To be honest I don’t know a thing about his new defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, Dave Wommack. As we can see from his bio though, he has not held a I-A defensive coordinator job for more than three years in a row in his 28 years of experience. Each time he left such a position he dropped back to being a position coach.

It’s possible that he’s now ready to be a top flight DC, but I don’t know how likely it is to suddenly happen after 28 years of coaching. It may just be that he wasn’t in the right situation in the past and now he’s where he needs to be. The pressure will be on him to get good results if Johnson’s offense really takes off.

Since the ACC is the most offensively anemic conference among the BCS leagues, it may not matter if Wommack doesn’t turn out to be as good as the exiting DC, John Tenuta. Georgia Tech is in a talent rich state and right next to an even more fertile recruiting ground, Florida. A dynamic offense at GT could probably outscore a lot of the teams in the conference even if it’s backed by a merely good defense.

I would imagine right now that Tech fans are hungering for three things: consistent contention in the ACC, a break of Georgia’s seven-game winning streak, and a product on the field that is not boring like Chan Gailey’s teams were. I fully expect to see the first and third happen within two years, but the second could be tough given how good the Bulldogs are right now.

Paul Johnson’s track record indicates he should do better than the 7-5 records that Chan Gailey put up seemingly every year. For that reason alone, it was a good move for Georgia Tech to replace the old coach with the new.

Further reading, with videos

Navy vs. Notre Dame 2007

Flexbonin’

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