COLLEGE PARK -- This isn't what Jamal Cox expected.
Cox, a senior linebacker from Gilman, leads Georgia Tech against Maryland tonight at Byrd Stadium, and finding the Yellow Jackets a way out of the Atlantic Coast Conference cellar is not what he had in mind for his last season of college football.
Cox, the leading tackler in the ACC, was drawn to the Yellow Jackets after their unanticipated run to a share of the national championship in 1990. The next season he spent Christmas Day in Hawaii, where Georgia Tech played in the Aloha Bowl. But Bobby Ross then left Atlanta for the San Diego Chargers, and it has been downhill since -- two 5-6 seasons followed by this year's 1-5 record.
"One of the reasons I came here was because I thought we would go to a bowl game every year," said Cox, who considered transferring to Maryland after his sophomore season. "I've had fun and enjoyed school, but I expected more success in football."
Cox takes no solace in the prevalent opinion that Georgia Tech and Stanford are the best one-win teams in the nation, that the five teams Georgia Tech has lost to are a combined 26-4 and that the Yellow Jackets are respected enough to be favored over Maryland. He has been in the middle of a season that has been one unsatisfying close call after another.
On Sept. 1, Georgia Tech's stock and Cox's All-America candidacy got a boost when the Yellow Jackets nearly beat Arizona, Sports Illustrated's preseason No. 1, in a game televised by ESPN. The Wildcats didn't score the winning touchdown until 29 seconds remained.
Georgia Tech followed with its only victory, over Division I-AA Western Carolina. Like Maryland, it was never in the game against upstart Duke. The Yellow Jackets were a touchdown shy of North Carolina State and North Carolina, and mistakes doomed them against Virginia last week.
The Yellow Jackets' injury-depleted offense has coughed up too many turnovers and the young defensive line has stopped few rushers.
"I made a speech in the locker room after Arizona, and told my teammates that we shouldn't lose another game," said Cox, who is No. 8 on Georgia Tech's career tackles list with 339. "The
coaches said we had to keep practicing hard. We believed it and did it, but it's just not happening on the field."
The locker room speech was the kind of gesture that Georgia Tech has come to expect from Cox.
"I don't think there is any linebacker in college football that could be doing more for his team than Jamal Cox is doing for us right now," said Georgia Tech coach Bill Lewis. "He is a tremendous leader and that quality is often overlooked. He is without question a legitimate All-America candidate."
A second-team All-ACC selection last year, Cox won't be playing in a bowl game, but he knows a strong performance in an all-star game could improve his chances in next year's NFL draft. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper projects Cox, who is 6 feet 3, 230 pounds and runs the 40 in 4.8 seconds, as a sixth- or seventh-round selection.
Cox, who grew up in Northeast Baltimore, had to work on his teammates to make sure he received enough tickets to satisfy family, friends and Gilman coaches who want to see him play tonight. It will be his team-leading 27th consecutive start, dating to the third game of his sophomore season.
The third game of Cox's streak was a 28-26 Yellow Jackets victory at Byrd Stadium, and Georgia Tech made it five straight over the Terps with a 38-0 rout in Atlanta last year. The Yellow Jackets' only other Division I-A victories in their past 24 games have come against Duke, Wake Forest and Baylor.