ATLANTA -- The way Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson sees it, spring ball this year looks about the same as it did a year ago, and about the same as it did the year before that.
He squelches any notion that his players and his program have changed coming off an 11-win season, Coastal Division title, and Orange Bowl victory.
“We’ve been in the ACC championship game three of the last seven years, so it’s not like something that hasn’t happened,” Johnson said. “We’ve been to bowl games every year, so there’s a really fine line between winning eight games and 10. Really I don’t see it any different than any other year. Maybe with the fans and the perception.
“We probably won’t get picked to finish fifth in the Coastal.”
Here is where everything changes, where everything is completely different for Georgia Tech. Every single season the Jackets played in the ACC championship game, they were routinely dismissed the following season.
Not anymore. With quarterback Justin Thomas returning, Georgia Tech is expected to be the preseason favorite to win the Coastal when the media makes its selections in July. Johnson shrugs at that.
“I don’t know if we’ll get picked first,” Johnson said. “You’ve got Miami and North Carolina with all these five-star guys.”
There it is, a trademark Johnson jab. The Hurricanes and Tar Heels both have been media preseason favorites -- yet neither has made an ACC championship game appearance. Perhaps being picked as the Coastal favorites for the very first time means outside observers are finally catching on to what the Yellow Jackets can do.
“I don’t know what it means,” Johnson said. “It’s probably a curse to get picked first because they’re never right. It’s cliché but we’ll try to get ready for the start of the season.”
It is understandable why Johnson might want to downplay what last season means for this season. Johnson is comfortable living in a place where the Jackets are underrated, only to rise up and prove their many doubters wrong, like surpassing last year's fifth-place prediction. Johnson did not let his players forget that.
The truth is, his players believe this spring has been different. Success always breeds confidence, but more than that, a changing locker room culture has shown them what can happen when everybody is pulling in the same direction.
“Before, people were doing their own thing,” Thomas said. “You had a puzzle and the pieces were outside and they weren’t put together. Now, everybody’s bought in. They know what it takes. There are no egos on the team. Nobody is saying I don’t want to do this, especially with this offense, people have to make sacrifices. They might not touch the ball as much but they have to do their blocking job. Even if you were in the huddle last year, when people would get subbed in, they’d say, ‘I’ll take the blocking shot instead of the running shot, so it was just small things like that.’”
Cornerback D.J. White added, “To have that happen last year was good for us as a team and as a program. It gives you something to shoot towards instead of shooting toward mediocrity and being OK with good enough -- just shooting towards being the best. That’s the mindset we have now.”
Players believe a spot in the College Football Playoff is possible this season, despite a more challenging schedule that features Florida State and Notre Dame in the regular season, to go along with annual games against Clemson and Georgia.
“Before I came in, I talked to some older players who were on some of the teams that weren’t really winning, and so I was like, ‘We’re going to do some great things at Georgia Tech,’” defensive end KeShun Freeman said. “One of the guys was like, ‘I don’t know. You have to work hard because you’re at Georgia Tech and we haven’t been doing our best lately.’ I was like, ‘Whatever. I’m coming in with the mentality that we’re going to be winners. We’re not going to settle for anything like that.’
“After we started winning, that guy came back to me and said, ‘I know what you’re saying now you guys are rocking, keep fighting.’ The whole mentality at Georgia Tech changed.”
Johnson might have won 11 games at Georgia Tech previously, doing so in 2009. But none of his players had that level of success until last season.
With Thomas leading the way for the next two seasons, it is easy to see why much has a chance to be different.