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College Football Countdown: No. 39 Georgia Tech

The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

Today at No. 39: Georgia Tech

Coach: Paul Johnson (33-19, entering fifth season at Georgia Tech, 140-58 overall)

2011 record: 8-5 (5-3 in Atlantic Coast Conference, sixth in ACC)

Look back: Georgia Tech began the 2011 season as one of the nation’s hottest teams. A 6-0 record and No. 12 national ranking carried the Yellow Jackets to the midseason point with so much hope and optimism. Losing five of their next seven games, however, the Jackets hit a stretch that was filled with bowl eligible teams. Only Duke and Miami — which was bowl eligible from a wins standpoint — didn’t advance to postseason games. Georgia, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Clemson were all ranked at points during the final six weeks of the season. As usual, Tech’s rushing game was among the nation’s best last season. What may have been a surprise to most outside of Atlanta, however, was the Jacket’s passing efficiency. The 155.38 rating was the best in the ACC and would have been the 13th-best nationally had Tech had enough passing attempts to qualify.

Offensive starters lost/returning: 4/7

Defensive starters lost/returning: 5/6

Key losses: WR Stephen Hill, WR Tyler Melton, RB Roddy Jones, OT Phil Smith, DE Jason Peters, LB Julian Burnett, LB Steven Sylvester, DT Logan Walls, S Rashaad Reid

Top returnees: QB Tevin Washington, RB Orwin Smith, RB David Sims, OG Omoregie Uzzi, OG Will Jackson, C Jay Finch, DE Izaan Cross, LB Jeremiah Attaochu, LB Quayshawn Nealy, CB Louis Young, S Isaiah Johnson

Strengths: As previously noted, Tech leans heavily on its rushing offense. A spread option scheme that features the triple option, the system is predicated on having an elusive, mobile quarterback and ballcarriers who can make defenders miss in the open field. Having a big-armed quarterback helps in the system, as well. While the Jackets seldom pass, they “want to make it hurt” when they do, as Johnson has been known to say. That means expect to see an occasional deep ball delivered by Tevin Washington. The loss of receivers Stephen Hill (drafted as a junior by the NewYork Jets) and Tyler Melton may make those big passing plays more difficult, but the Jackets feel Washington’s experience will cancel out any issues they have in that area of their game. After taking over for previous starter Joshua Nesbitt at the end of the 2010 season, Washington now has about a season-and-a-half of starting experience entering his senior campaign.

Weaknesses: Last season, the Jackets made strides defensively, as they finally appeared to settle into defensive coordinator Al Groh’s 3-4 base scheme. It was their second year playing under Groh on that side of the ball. This year, Tech’s defense could struggle up front and at linebacker after the departures of veterans Jason Peters, Logan Walls and Steven Sylvester, and the untimely career-ending injury suffered by key linebacker Julian Burnett. Hurt during the Sun Bowl, Burnett was hoping to make a dramatic return this offseason for his final year. The junior was a key leader on the unit all of last season and throughout his career. At secondary, the Jackets have a trio of juniors in Rod Sweeting, Louis Young and Isaiah Johnson who may be able to make up for any issues the team may have up front. Additionally, special teams remains a concern. Kicker Justin Moore was 11-for-16 on field goals last season. That includes a 3-for-7 mark from beyond 40 yards.

Outlook: Last fall, the Jackets learned their 2009 ACC Championship was no longer being recognized by the conference after an NCAA investigation revealed a player from that team had accepted an illegal benefit, and administrators improperly handled the reporting of it. Barring the unforeseen, the Jackets this season have a good chance to replace that vacated conference crown with a true title in 2012. Tech may have one of the most favorable schedules in the conference this season. Get past Virginia Tech in the season opener in Blacksburg, Va., and the Jackets could set themselves up for a nine- or 10-win regular season. Having a string of four-straight games at home near the start of the year should help them. While beating the Hokies at Lane Stadium will be a difficult task, many of the current Jackets bitterly remember their last trip there. In a close game that they had a chance at winning, the Jackets lost Nesbitt to a season-ending injury when he tried to make a tackle at the end of an interception return. From there, without the emotional leader of the team, their season spiraled, giving Johnson the first losing record of his 15-year coaching career.

2012 Schedule

Sept. 3 at Virginia Tech

Sept. 8 Presbyterian

Sept. 15 Virginia

Sept. 22 Miami

Sept. 29 Middle Tennessee

Oct. 6 at Clemson

Oct. 20 Boston College

Oct. 27 BYU

Nov. 3 at Maryland

Nov. 10 at North Carolina

Nov. 17 Duke

Nov. 24 at Georgia

Rest of the countdown:

No. 41 Wake Forest

No. 42 Houston

No. 43 Virginia

No. 44 Northwestern

No. 45 Miami

No. 46 Southern Miss

No. 47 USF

No. 48 North Carolina

No. 49 Illinois

No. 50 Tulsa

No. 51 California

No. 52 UCF

No. 53 Pittsburgh

No. 54 Arizona

No. 55 BYU

No. 56 Ohio

No. 57 Temple

No. 58 Purdue

No. 59 Arkansas State

No. 60 Vanderbilt

No. 61 Connecticut

No. 62 Arizona State

No. 63 Wyoming

No. 64 Northern Illinois

No. 65 Utah State

No. 66 Louisiana-Lafayette

No. 67 Marshall

No. 68 Western Michigan

No. 69 Louisiana Tech

No. 70 Kentucky

No. 71 Air Force

No. 72 Western Kentucky

No. 73 UCLA

No. 74 Toledo

No. 75 FIU

No. 76 San Jose State

No. 77 North Texas

No. 78 Iowa State

No. 79 Nevada

No. 80 Eastern Michigan

No. 81 Hawai’i

No. 82 East Carolina

No. 83 Texas Tech

No. 84 Washington State

No. 85 San Diego State

No. 86 Ball State

No. 87 Navy

No. 88 Tennessee

No. 89 Kent State

No. 90 Louisiana-Monroe

No. 91 Bowling Green

No. 92 Syracuse

No. 93 Minnesota

No. 94 Boston College

No. 95 Kansas

No. 96 Oregon State

No. 97 Rice

No. 98 Ole Miss

No. 99 Colorado

No. 100 New Mexico State

No. 101 Duke

No. 102 Idaho

No. 103 Army

No. 104 Maryland

No. 105 Colorado State

No. 106 Miami (Ohio)

No. 107 UTEP

No. 108 Troy

No. 109 Fresno State

No. 110 Central Michigan

No. 111 Indiana

No. 112 Memphis

No. 113 Middle Tennessee

No. 114 UAB

No. 115 Buffalo

No. 116 Tulane

No. 117: FAU

No. 118: UNLV

No. 119: Akron

No. 120: New Mexico

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