2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: For the 19th straight season, Georgia Tech finished with a non-losing conference record (5-3), the longest streak in the FBS. In addition to that milestone, the Yellow Jackets participated in their 17th consecutive bowl season, finishing the year at 7-6.
The campaign began strong, with wins over Elon (70-0), Duke (38-14) and North Carolina (28-20). However, the strong start was negated by three straight losses after that, as Paul Johnson's squad lost to Virginia Tech (17-10), Miami-Florida (45-30) and BYU (38-20). Another three-game win streak over Syracuse (56-0), Virginia (35-25) and Pittsburgh (21-10) made the team bowl eligible in early November at 6-3.
However, another momentum swing the rest of the way saw the Yellow Jackets lose three of their last four games, including a 25-17 setback to Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl. The lone win during that span came against FCS foe Alabama A&M (66-7).
OFFENSE: Johnson's spread offense was clicking on all cylinders again in 2013, as Tech finished sixth nationally in rushing at a hefty 299.3 yards per game. However, like in years past, the passing game lagged far behind, managing a mere 130.4 ypg.
Johnson will start over with very little returning in the backfield. Gone is QB Vad Lee and RBs David Sims and Robert Godhigh, who accounted for over 2,000 yards on the ground.
Sophomore Justin Thomas is the likely successor to Lee under center. In limited action in 2013, Thomas averaged 7.1 yards per carry. Tim Byerly could see some extended time as well and is a little better passer than Thomas at this time.
Johnson has confidence in both guys.
"I think that Justin Thomas brings a great skill set to what we want to do offensively. He's a guy with great quickness.
"He's not a big guy, but I think he's very talented. Tim Byerly is a young man who transferred in, walked on, and he's earned a scholarship but had a great spring practice."
Senior RB Zack Laskey will headline what is sure to be a deep backfield. Laskey averaged almost six yards per carry last year and scored seven TDs. He will give up some carries to senior Synjyn Days, who has made the transition from backup quarterback early in his career to productive ball carrier.
Tech has produced some star receivers in the recent past (Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Stephen Hill), but one hasn't materialized since then. Senior DeAndre Smelter (6-3, 225) is the top returning receiver although he had just 21 catches, for 345 yards and four TDs a year ago.
There will be some shuffling along the offensive line, but there is experience returning, highlighted by senior guard Shaquille Mason (6-1, 311), who earned all-conference honors as a junior.
DEFENSE: Despite finishing just over .500 a year ago, Georgia Tech's defense was a pleasant surprise under new coordinator Ted Roof, finishing 11th nationally against the run (115.8 ypg).
Unfortunately, the unit has been gutted, with only four starters returning this year. Finding a replacement for DE/LB Jeremiah Attaochu and his 12.5 sacks is first on the to-do list. Junior defensive tackle Adam Gotsis (38 tackles, 9.0 TFL and 5.5 sacks) is a disruptive force in the middle and is the only returning starter up front. In a new 4-2-5 defensive scheme, youngsters like sophomores Tyler Stargel and Kenderius Whitehead will need to step up on the outside.
Senior Quayshawn Nealy (66 tackles, 3.5 TFL, two INTs) leads this defense from his middle linebacker spot. Junior cornerback D.J. White will get help in the secondary with the return of safeties Demond Smith (45 tackles) and Isaiah Johnson, who missed 2013 due to a knee injury.
Nealy addressed the defense's lack of experience heading into 2014.
"Definitely just leaning on the seniors to pick us up. We've definitely been picking up the younger guys."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Place kicker Harrison Butker had a strong season as a freshman in 2013, going 53-of-54 on PATs and 10-of-14 on field-goal attempts with a long of 49 yards. He returns, but punter Sean Poole has moved on. Sophomore Ryan Rodwell is the top choice to fill that role in 2014 after redshirting a year ago.
OUTLOOK: Despite some turnover on both sides of the football, reaching an 18th straight bowl game is likely for the Yellow Jackets.
The non-conference schedule is favorable early on with home games against Wofford and Georgia Southern sandwiched around a road tilt at Tulane. The team closes out the non-league and regular-season slates against rival Georgia in Athens.
ACC teams that travel to Atlanta include Miami-Florida, Duke, Virginia and Clemson, while Georgia Tech goes on the road to take on Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and NC State. The team does avoid Florida State and Louisville this year and its streak of non-losing conference records should continue as a result.