We’re now inside of a month until the Tennessee Volunteers open their 2017 season against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. According to Vegas, the Vols are a slight favorite in the game, but some are rightly concerned about having to play against Paul Johnson’s unusual offense. The conventional wisdom is that Johnson makes his living from beating teams that haven’t had time to prepare for something they don’t see every week, but that having more time to prepare for Georgia Tech matters.
Too many years of lawyering has made me generally skeptical of conventional wisdom, so I wanted to look at the data to see if it supports the theory. Good news, Vols fans: It does.
I looked first at Georgia Tech’s season openers during Paul Johnson’s time there, which started in 2008. This actually wasn’t very helpful, as I quickly discovered that the Yellow Jackets generally open their season with a cupcake.
Since 2008, the only ranked team Georgia Tech has played in an opener is #16 Virginia Tech in 2012, a game that they lost. Apart from the Hokies, the only other Power 5 program they’ve opened against in the past nine years is a Boston College team that finished the season 7-6. They won that one.
The other season-opening opponents are what we’ll call non-probative: Jacksonville State (twice), South Carolina State, Western Carolina, Elon, Wofford, and Alcorn State. It should come as no surprise that GT won all of those games, and you really can’t draw any conclusions from it. The choice of opponent was the difference that mattered.
Bowl games, though, were a different story. Apart from a 2015 season during which the Yellow Jackets went 3-9, they’ve made a bowl game every season since 2008, and they mostly played decent teams. Those opponents included #7 Mississippi State in 2014, #10 Iowa in 2009, LSU in 2008, USC in 2012, Ole Miss in 2013, Kentucky in 2016, and Air Force and Utah in 2010 and 2011.
The Yellow Jackets’ record in those games was 3-5. In addition, two of the wins came against middling 7-5 regular season teams (USC in 2012 and Kentucky last year), and their third win came during the Yellow Jackets excellent 11-3 season in 2014.
So, yeah. Georgia Tech’s bowl games serve as pretty good evidence that teams that have more time to prepare generally get better results against them.
What about Georgia Tech’s “other” losses, meaning the non-season openers and non-bowl games? Do they have anything to offer on the question? Here’s the data on those:
2008: The Yellow Jackets lost three “other” games: Virgnia Tech, Virginia, and #19 North Carolina. The Tar Heels had a bye week before the game.
2009: They lost to #20 Miami and Georgia, and Miami had 10 days to prepare.
2010: They lost six other games, three of which (NC State, Virginia Tech, and Georgia) were against opponents with more than a week to prepare.
2011: Of the four other games they lost, two of them (Virginia, Virginia Tech) came against teams with extra time to prepare. Y’all need to stop giving the Hokies extra time.
2012: They lost to three teams ranked in the Top 15, plus Miami and MTSU. MTSU had a bye before the game.
2013: Lost to #8 Clemson, #14 Miami, Georgia, and Virginia Tech. The Hokies actually beat Georgia Tech on a short turnaround (five days), and Clemson probably didn’t need it, but they had 12 days to prepare.
In their 11-3 season in 2014, they lost to #4 Florida State, North Carolina, and Duke. The Blue Devils had a bye week before the game.
2015: They couldn’t beat anybody anyway, but one of their nine losses came against a team that had 12 days to prepare.
And last season, the Yellow Jackets lost to # 5 Clemson, #14 Miami, #21 North Carolina, and Pitt. This should give you some anxiety that they are probably a pretty good team. But the Miami and North Carolina losses did come after bye weeks for the opposing teams.
So by my count, that’s a total of 13 of 40 losses that came against teams that had extra time to prepare for Paul Johnson’s unusual offense. If you exclude the 2015 season during which their opponents didn’t need extra time to beat them, that number is 12 of 31. Extra time to prepare may have mattered nearly 40% of the time.
A win for conventional wisdom
It’s probably important to note that ACC Coastal teams and Georgia play Georgia Tech every year and therefore have more regular familiarity with the Yellow Jackets than others, such as teams who only meet them in bowl games and other non-conference matchups. So, perhaps the bowl game data is a little more probative than the “other losses” data. But it’s just as important to note that what matters most is how good the teams actually are. The time-to-prepare factor seems to come into play only when the game is between somewhat evenly matched teams.
That’s good news for the Vols, who are likely viewed by most as the better team on paper. While there is some danger in having to prepare for an offense that is out of the ordinary, the data suggests that having extra time to prepare against the Yellow Jackets matters. And so if Tennessee must play Georgia Tech, playing them in a season-opener is a good time to do it. They still need to prove they are the better team, but at least they should be ready.