It hasn't exactly been a banner season so far in terms of won-loss record for Georgia Tech, just three years removed from an ACC championship. The Yellow Jackets head to Chapel Hill for Saturday's 12:30 tilt with ACC Coastal Division rival North Carolina sitting at 4-5 overall and 3-3 in league play.
Although mathematically the Yellow Jackets could still sit atop the Coastal at season's end if they can beat UNC and Duke the next two weeks and get some help, Georgia Tech has a couple of losses that really stick out this fall, such as a stunning 49-28 setback to Middle Tennessee State, and most recently a 41-17 home loss against BYU.
In league play they lost to tough division rivals Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Miami, while beating Virginia, Maryland, and Boston College for its three conference triumphs.
While Georgia Tech has been atrocious defensively and actually fired former defensive coordinator Al Groh a few weeks back, the Yellow Jackets are again potent and quite dangerous on offense, and how well North Carolina's defense deals with the triple-option attack will naturally dictate how the game Saturday will go.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora would have preferred to have had a bye week earlier in the season to help his team rest up and heal a little, but he admits that it is beneficial to get extra time to prepare for this specific opponent.
And the Tar Heel players we spoke with agreed.
"I typically don't like an off week this late in the season. I prefer it a little bit earlier in the year. You go 13 straight weeks of football and your guys get really worn down. But it came at a good time before Georgia Tech," said Fedora. "It gives us a little bit of extra time to prepare for the triple option which is always nice."
"It's one of those things where you've got to be very prepared and watch a lot of film. I spent all last week and this week watching film because you want to get an edge on a team like this," added senior defensive tackle Sylvester Williams.
Despite its defensive troubles, Georgia Tech currently ranks in the top four in the ACC in total offense (449.1 yards per game), scoring offense (34.9 points per game), and pass efficiency (148.6), and as one might expect, the Yellow Jackets are leading the entire league in rushing yardage, averaging a whopping 318.2 yards per outing on the ground.
It's a 'scratch and claw' approach that involves old-school, 'churn it out' power dives up the middle, combined with speed rushes to the outside and often-elusive QB keepers.
There's also the threat of the play-action pass if a team dedicates too many men to clogging the box.
It's the type of scheme that a lot of players are glad they only have to face once a year.
"I'd rather play a regular offense---a team that runs a base offense. This offense is more of a 'you've got to kind protect your knees' at times. There's a lot of things going on," said Williams. "You also want to be able to protect yourself. Like I say, they're on the ground a lot. There's a lot of bodies on the ground. They try to cut a lot."
"You do get opportunities to make a lot of plays, but at the same time, I'd rather play a team where I can rush the passer and get into the backfield."
Fedora, who last faced the triple-option a year ago when his Southern Miss team faced Navy, reiterated the need for the Tar Heel defenders to handle their individual assignments and not try to do too much.
And while there are naturally some variations between some of the things teams like Georgia Tech and Navy are specifically doing, ultimately the triple-option is based upon the same premise that the quarterback has one of three choices---the dive handoff up the middle, the pitch to the outside, or the keeper.
"The triple option offense, whether it was at Air Force or Navy last year, there's a lot of different versions of it and they lean different ways," said Fedora. "But still you've got to dive at the quarterback and you've got a pitch in just about every single play. You really have to be disciplined to handle it."
With Georgia Tech keying on creating isolated mismatches and opportunities for their runners in space, it's crucial the Tar Heels play together while individually handling individual responsibilities without trying to be the proverbial hero.
"It's assignment discipline. You've got to know your job, you've got to do your job and you don't worry about doing somebody else's job," Fedora said. "You just do your job."
"They're coached up, and they've got an assignment," added Williams of Georgia Tech.
"With this offense, it's everybody with an assignment. They key on one guy every play, so if one guy (on defense) makes a mistake, it's a 30-yard gain, 40-yard gain, or perhaps a touchdown. They coach their guys up to do what they need to do."
"And they tell the guy (blocking on the play side), 'Well, if we need to get that guy on the ground, we need him on the ground in order for us to make a big play.' And they kind of focus on that and feed off that type of stuff."
"They've got great coaches and players, and they do what they're coached to do, so it's going to be our job to go in there and do what we're coached to do and for everybody to do their assignment," Williams continued. "All 11 (defensive players) have got to get to the ball and take care of their responsibility. That's what the coaches have been harping on all week."
Along with being prepared for the run comes the discipline of knowing that at any given time, Georgia Tech will air it out on you and beat you deep. Having been beaten on similar plays last year in Atlanta, the hope for UNC is that their secondary is more ready to handle the play-action passing game.
"You're involved now in the scheme of the running game on every play," Fedora said. "They have to be very disciplined with their assignments because you can't just totally commit to the run because the next thing you know after doing that they play action you and they throw it over your head."
"Those guys (in the secondary) have to do a great job with their eyes and they have to again be very, very disciplined. That's what this offense does to you. It makes teams be a little more simple and also definitely more disciplined."
Replicating what the Yellow Jackets do offensively has been one of the primary challenges in practice this week, and while the UNC scout team has done its best, Fedora knows that preparation cannot adequately prepare the Tar Heel defenders for the speed and precision of Georgia Tech's delivery of the triple-option.
"I can assure you it's hard for you to duplicate the speed of the game in practice. First of all your scout team guys aren't going to be good at running the triple option offense and they're not going be near as fast as doing it because they don't play that offense," Fedora said.
"You get into the game and usually there's a period early where your defense has to just adjust to the speed of the game in their defending."
Another huge theme in playing Georgia Tech is field position and time of possession, which are both crucial for teams playing them.
It's very important not to turn the ball over or punt poorly to give the Yellow Jackets a short field, and it's also vital for the UNC offense to extend possessions and get first downs not only for field position, but also to keep Tech's offense off the field.
Georgia Tech is notorious for wearing down opposing defenses in the second half and producing long offensive possessions that often wind down as much as two-thirds of a quarter if not more.
So far this year the Yellow Jackets aren't getting a huge advantage (they're fourth in the ACC averaging 31:04 minutes of offensive possession per game), and UNC needs to ensure that time of possession doesn't become a negative factor for them on Saturday.
"Offensively we've got to do a great job of moving the chains," Fedora said. "It's going to be very important that we don't have short possessions. And we've got to take care of the football so that we don't give them extra possessions. And we have to finish when we have the ball because it's going to be tough on the defense. We've got to keep them (our defense) off the field as much as possible."