Veteran team, favorable schedule have Tech thinking ACC title

ATLANTA - Every serious college football fan performs the same August ritual.

Buy the preseason magazine. Review the players returning to your team. Go over the stars coming back to your team's opponents. Go through the schedule, marking wins, losses and maybes.

Georgia Tech diehards have inked in plenty of Ws for 2007.

The Yellow Jackets return 17 starters, including four offensive lineman, the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference rushing champion, a star middle linebacker, two experienced safeties and the nation's best punter.

Many of their opponents, meanwhile, are rebuilding. Notre Dame, the Jackets' season-opening foe, lost all its offensive skill players. ACC Coastal Division rivals Miami, Virginia and North Carolina are down, two of them with new coaches. Georgia, those hated Bulldogs, have more defensive questions than France in wartime.

And Georgia Tech's three toughest ACC games - Boston College, Clemson and Virginia Tech - are at home in Bobby Dodd Stadium.

The Jackets face Boston College the third week of the season, with the Eagles coming off mentally draining games against defending ACC champ Wake Forest and NC State, the team led by their former coach, Tom O'Brien.

Clemson comes to Atlanta a year after embarrassing the Jackets, 41-14. Wounded pride is powerful motivation.

The Virginia Tech game is on a Thursday night following an off week for Georgia Tech.

Oh, and lest fans forget, the Yellow Jackets don't play two of the ACC's best teams, Florida State and Wake Forest, because of the league's unbalanced schedule.

It is as if the schedule-maker were a hell of an engineer or something.

"It's hard to overlook that" schedule, fullback Mike Cox said. "That helps us get ready for the year a little more. You look at the teams and we know we have that much better a chance of going where we want to go and doing the things we want to do."

Georgia Tech still faces several obstacles, starting with the players' psyches. The Yellow Jackets open the season on a three-game losing streak. They lost to Georgia, Wake Forest and West Virginia, all by three points, to close out last season.

The finish all but spoiled the program's best season under sixth-year head coach Chan Gailey. The Jackets were 9-2, ranked 16th nationally and destined for the Orange Bowl at Thanksgiving. By New Year's night, they were 9-5 and despondent.

"We don't want that to happen again," linebacker Philip Wheeler said. "You can't take away those nine wins. They count. We felt like we finished with a pretty good record. But we have to finish the season."

Closing out quality opponents in big games is the next "step" for the program, Gailey said. But history shows Georgia Tech takes steps more slowly than a octogenarian with a walker: The Jackets posted four straight seven-win seasons before finally breaking through for nine last year.

"We took a step forward last year," Gailey said. "I think we've been taking steps forward, but this one was more visible to Joe Blow. I've been seeing it, but it's been hard for other people to see it. But now everybody has seen us take a small step. We're not there. We still have a long way to go."

Another potential Yellow Jacket roadblock is injury. As talented and experienced as they are, they lack depth at key positions. Taylor Bennett is the only quarterback with more than two college snaps to his credit. The reserve offensive linemen are untested. Wheeler would be a catastrophic loss on defense, as would defensive tackle Darryl Richard or safeties Djay Jones and Jamal Lewis.

"We have back-ups," Bennett said. "Hopefully nothing happens, but if it does, they have to go out there and do the job."

Bennett's confidence, shared by all his teammates, is Georgia Tech's defense against calamity. The Yellow Jackets have transitioned from thinking of themselves as underdogs - which often results in playing to the level of the competition, good or bad - into believing they are contenders, if not favorites, to win the ACC.

"I think we win every game when I fill out the schedule in the preseason, but I've thought that going back to when I played pee-wee football," Cox said. "But we want people when they hear ACC to think Georgia Tech. We want Georgia Tech to pop into your head."

SideBar: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

' Coach: Chan Gailey (Sixth year)

' 2006 Record: 9-5 overall, 7-1 ACC

' 2007 Projected Finish: Second, ACC Coastal Division by preseason media poll

' Key Returnees (2006 stats): TB Tashard Choice (1,473 yards, 12 TDs), WR James Johnson (608 yards, 7 TDs), QB Taylor Bennett (19-29, 326 yards, 3 TDs in Gator Bowl), OT Andrew Gardner (third-year starter), OG Matt Rhodes (fourth-year starter), C Kevin Tuminello (third-year starter), OG Nate McManus (third-year starters), FB Mike Cox (third-year starter), LB Philip Wheeler (89 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 9 sacks), LB Gary Guyton (8 tackles for loss, 2 sacks), DE Adamm Oliver (70 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks), DT Darryl Richard (20 tackles, 3 tackles for loss), DE Darrell Robertson (54 tackles, 3 sacks), SS Jamal Lewis (74 tackles, 3 INTs), FS Djay Jones (46 tackles, 3 INTs), PK Travis Bell (12-18 FGs, 43-43 PATs), P Durant Brooks (45.5 average, 35 inside 20-yard line)

' Key losses (2006 stats): WR Calvin Johnson (1,202 yards, 15 TDs), QB Reggie Ball (2,174 yards total offense, 22 TDs), OT Mansfield Wrotto, LB KaMichael Hall (91 tackles, 9 tackles for loss), DT Joe Anoai (40 tackles, 4.5 sacks), CB Kenny Scott (50 tackles, 2 INTs)

' The Pig-Skinny: Georgia Tech is stacked for its ACC Coastal Division title defense. The offense should be prolific even with wide receiver Calvin Johnson's departure, and the defense returns eight starters, more than enough for coordinator Jon Tenuta. The Yellow Jackets could be susceptible to abuse from good passing teams, but Boston College's Matt Ryan and Georgia's Matthew Stafford are the only two top proven quarterbacks they will face in the regular season. Avoid injury and finally break through against the rival Bulldogs for the first time in seven years and the Jackets could be in for a dream season