Georgia Tech players expecting championships under Johnson

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

ATLANTA, Ga. -- Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson trudged into the interview room after his team's dramatic, last-minute 31-28 win over Florida State with a scowl on his face. All 6-foot-7of him looked miserable.

"We gave up 28 points," he mumbled.

The standards at Georgia Tech have changed under first-year coach Paul Johnson.

Yes, with its seven wins Georgia Tech has officially surpassed preseason expectations so low you could trip over them. And yes, the Yellow Jackets became bowl eligible on Saturday for the 12th straight season.

But c'mon, going to bowl games?

"That's old news, going to a bowl," Michael Johnson said. "We're trying to compete for championships around here now."

With a little help from Miami this weekend, they're still able to. And they're looking way ahead of schedule in the process.

Georgia Tech fell a step behind in the Coastal Division standings with its loss to Virginia last weekend, but as soon as the Hurricanes defeated Virginia 24-17 in overtime, Georgia Tech shot back up to the top of the division standings. The score in Charlottesville was one of the first things Paul Johnson told his team in the locker room after their game.

In order for it to matter, though, Georgia Tech had to take care of its own business first.

"It was a big win for us," Johnson said. "I think that everybody when the season started wrote us off, said we were going to win three games, four games. Then when we started out pretty good, then everybody jumped on the bandwagon. And then when we lost last week, they couldn't get off fast enough. And so it was good for the guys to win. I don't know if we'll win another game, but I know this: I know we've won seven, and that's more than anybody thought we'd win, so I'm proud of it."

The doubts came in large part because of Johnson's old-school triple-option offense (which has really blown the whole three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust stereotype right out of Bobby Dodd Stadium), not to mention an entirely new defense, too. But those within the program -- and coaches throughout the league who have failed to stop the Jackets' offense -- are true believers.

"It's just a tough offense," said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose nationally ranked defense gave up 288 rushing yards. "Nobody runs it anymore because it's not stylish. But it's still effective. Paul probably runs it as good as anybody. He's a master at it."

It's more than the offense, defensive tackle Darryl Richard said, that will make Georgia Tech an annual contender for the ACC title.

"I think his teams in the future will constantly compete for championships because it's the way he programs a team," Richard said. "I don't believe his system is just the triple option. I believe his system builds all the way from the offseason, how he makes men out of boys. It's a mentality, and I think it's showing up in football games."

On Saturday, Georgia Tech was still able to win despite an ankle injury to its starting quarterback and a depleted secondary. Two true freshmen -- safety Cooper Taylor, who was making his first career start at the expense of injured Dominique Reese, and cornerback Rashaad Reid, were the difference in the game. With 45 seconds remaining, Cooper stripped the ball in the end zone and Reid fell on it. The play prevented Florida State's game-winning touchdown.

"I saw him try and pick that up I wanted to strangle him," Johnson said of Reid. "Then when I saw him roll over with it, I wanted to kiss him."

So it goes with freshmen. And Johnson has managed to win with a two-deep roster that is comprised of 32 players who are either freshmen or sophomores, including 15 starters.

When Johnson took the job, he couldn't remember exactly how many consecutive bowl trips the program had been to, but he was certain of this:

"I knew it had been a bunch," he said, "and I didn't want to be the guy to break it."

Johnson had told his team this week that good teams don't lose two games in a row, and his didn't.

So just how good is Georgia Tech?

"I don't know," he said. "It's a work in progress, every week. This team is probably good enough to win most of their games, all their games, and they also can lose every game."

Georgia Tech's win sets up a critical Coastal Division game on Saturday at North Carolina. Both teams have two conference losses to Virginia and Virginia Tech.

"I told our guys, I felt all along that we've just gotta take care of our business and let it work out," Johnson said. "If we can finish with only two losses in the ACC, I feel good about our chances. Now we've got a huge game next week (against) possibly in my mind, from what I've seen on film, (North Carolina) may be the best team in the league all-around. It will be a big challenge for us."