NIU Head Coach Thomas Hammock (Justin Gasterline-Getty Images)

Toe Meets Leather in three weeks, Yellow Jackets fans. That familiar smell of preseason optimism is wafting through the air of college campuses and homes across the U.S. Every team is undefeated, and every fan's opinion is unblemished.

Contrary to popular fan opinion, success and failure will not be defined solely by those bearing headsets on the west sidelines of Bobby Dodd Stadium nor only the players in white and gold. Come week 1, there's another squad with something to say about that. Coming to Atlanta for the Jackets' 2021 season opener are the Northern Illinois Huskies. This will be the first ever head-to-head match-up between schools. With that, for many Tech fans this will be a first look at a proud program out of the Mid-American Conference (MAC).

The Huskies' recent history in the MAC is noteworthy, having won 4 conference championships in the last 10 years. They strung together 10 bowl appearances in 11 years from 2008-2018. All of this within a conference known for giving P5 teams a fit.

So what are they this year? To be determined, of course. Looking back at 2020 offers a glimpse. Coming off a disappointing 0-6 season in 2020, the Huskies have nowhere to go but up. They're led by third year Head Coach Thomas Hammock, a proud alum of the school who joined the program via assistant coaching stops at Wisconsin, Minnesota and most recently with the Baltimore Ravens.

A third year head coach, trying to right the ship, in a role that he describes as his "dream job". Sound familiar?

Winless seasons have few silver linings, and last year was no exception. The Huskies gave up 30+ points in each of their six conference-only games. They lost by 3+ scores in three of those tilts. They averaged 1.70 points per drive offensively (#104 nationally) and gave up 2.77 points per drive defensively (#96 nationally). For a relative comparison, the Duke Blue Devils' 2020 output comes close (1.63 offense, 2.77 defense). Disclaimer: that comparison does not account for strength of schedule.

But guess what? Much like many Tech fans are wont to dismiss 2020 as an anomaly, you can bet Northern Illinois is thinking the same. In a season without prior precedent, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for the Huskies to believe that. Per Phil Steele, the Huskies played 14 walk-ons last year.

Offensively, the Huskies were remarkably balanced in 2020, with 36.8 pass attempts and 36.8 rush attempts per game. That resulted in an average output of 240 yards passing and 127 yards rushing per game. Tyrice Richie, a six foot senior wideout, returns after averaging 8.8 receptions and nearly 100 yards receiving per game in 2020. The offense will likely be led by Michigan State transfer quarterback, Rocky Lombardi, who threw for 1,000+ yards, 8 TD and 9 INT during his final season with the Spartans.

Defensively, the Huskies lacked a disruptor. Only one player registered 2 sacks in 2020. They allowed 245 yards passing per game. A cornerback, 5'10" Jordan Gandy, led the team with 41 tackles. All-MAC linebacker Kyle Pugh returns after leading the squad with 3.5 TFL.

On special teams, the Huskies safely outperformed the Jackets in the placekicking game. Who didn’t?  Returning kicker John Richardson converted 7 of 9 field goal attempts in 2020, with a long of 46 yards. He was a perfect 14 for 14 on extra points.

There are reasons for optimism for Northern Illinois this year. According to, the Huskies were really young in 2020. They bring back all five starters from the offensive line last year, a position that arguably has the greatest need for continuity and reps. They return 10 starters on defense. Phil Steele named 13 Huskies to his preseason All-MAC teams for 2021.  Safe to assume they will be an improved team.

It's also safe to say that, after putting up a donut in 2020, the Huskies have not lacked for motivation this offseason.  Combine that with their P5 opener on the road at Bobby Dodd Stadium on September 4th, and we have the all the makings of a feisty opener for the Jackets.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse
Syracuse Head Coach Dino Babers (Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

Believe it or not, the Syracuse Orange are now in year 5 under the reign of Head Coach Dino Babers.  And what a roller coaster it has been.

Sparked in 2018 by gritty senior quarterback Eric Dungey, who led the Orange to 10 wins and a trophy in the ACC’s 2nd slot bowl game (Camping World Bowl), the Babers’ regime has thus far failed to capitalize on the program’s early momentum.  Syracuse backfilled the 2018 campaign by putting an Elite 11 quarterback at the helm in 2019, Tommy DeVito.  Thus far, those accolades have failed to produce.


Babers has been known throughout his head coaching career as an offensive guru, starting with coaching Jimmy Garoppolo at Eastern Illinois. He followed with by replacing Dave Clawson, current Wake Forest head coach, at Bowling Green.  There he led the Falcons to a MAC championship in 2015 as part of a 10-win season where the offense produced 8 games of 40+ points. So far in 2020, Syracuse (0-2, 0-2) enters week 3 of its schedule in arguably the most dire position offensively that Babers has ever faced.

Through two games in 2020, DeVito has thrown for 144 yards total.  He has been sacked 14 times.  No, those sacks were not simply due to one bad game.  Both North Carolina and Pittsburgh tallied 7 sacks apiece.  The Syracuse offense has produced exactly one touchdown, and of course it came via the back-up quarterback who connected on play over the top for 69 yards against Pittsburgh. That play accounted for 69 of Syracuse's 171 total yards for the game.

To make matters worse, the trying times on offense are only somewhat under Babers’ control.  Syracuse entered the preseason knowing its offensive line had razor thin depth.  Before the season started, the Orange lost starters at both guard positions as well as first-off-the-bench key reserves.  Adding to the depth disarray, the Orange lost its first and second string running back to opt-outs before game 1.

Common wisdom in baseball is that you are defined defensively by the strength up the middle (catcher, pitcher, second baseman, shortstop, center field).  In Syracuse terms, they’ve lost 2/3 of their middle from an already challenged personnel group.  As Georgia Tech experienced last year with its own injuries on the offensive line, an offensive coordinator cannot wave a magic wand to make things better.

Speaking of offensive coordinators, Syracuse has a new one in 2020 that will be familiar to Jackets’ fans.  The Orange brought in Sterlin Gilbert, previously the offensive coordinator at USF in 2017 and 2018.  In 2018, the USF Bulls racked up 35 points offensively en route to a 49-38 win over the Jackets in Tampa, FL.  Thus far, the early returns at Syracuse speak for itself, caveats previously noted.


If transition of scheme on offense wasn’t enough, Syracuse also transitioned to the 3-3-5 defense under new defensive coordinator, Tony White.  White coached defensive backs at Arizona State and was promoted to defensive coordinator in December before making the transition to Syracuse.  Thus far, the returns for the Orange have been surprisingly positive.

Despite the anemic Orange offense, Syracuse entered the 4th quarter of each of its first two games trailing within striking distance.  Against the Tar Heels on the road, the Orange trailed 10-6 entering the fourth.  Against the Panthers, the Orange trailed 21-10, the eventual final score.  Overall, not bad for a defense hung out to dry.

Given Georgia Tech’s turnover woes, it should be noted that the Orange’s best player on defense is junior safety Andre Cisco.  Simply put, Cisco is a ball hawk.  Somehow under the radar out of IMG Academy, Cisco managed to make national All-America teams his freshman year (not the freshman teams, mind you) after leading the NCAA with 7 interceptions.  He was All-ACC Second Team during his sophomore campaign in 2019.  He entered the 2020 season as the FBS Active Leader in interceptions (12) and #2 in passes defended per game (1.27). Thus far in 2020, he’s on the board with 1 pick off of Sam Howell.  He is everywhere on the field.

Special Teams

The Orange enter the game versus Georgia Tech with a decided advantage on special teams.  Based on what Georgia Tech has shown early that may not be saying much, however the comparison is most stark at the field goal kicking position.  Kicker Andre Szmyt, a former walk-on, was the 2018 Lou Groza award winner.  He is 50 for 58 for his career and has connected from over 50 in each of his first two full seasons.

The Orange also have a fairly dynamic punt returner this year in Nykeim Johnson.  At 5’ 8”, his low center of gravity and short area quickness makes him a threat to take it to the house.  He did just that against North Carolina, however the return was called back due to a blindside hit by the Orange return team that had no impact on the outcome of the play.

Keys To The Game

I’ll start by beating the familiar drum.  Turnovers and Special Teams.  If Georgia Tech can limit turnovers, I think the Jackets take this one.  Even with turnovers, it should be possible for Tech to stay in this via solid defensive play.

Of course, the injuries to the Syracuse OL has a doppelganger in Georgia Tech’s DL.  It could be argued that the Jackets will field the weakest defensive line that the Orange have faced thus far.  And you could say without argument that the Orange have a leg up on Special Teams, despite our absolute unit in Pressley Harvin (mandatory weekly shout-out).

Both Syracuse and Georgia Tech enter this game at inflection points.  Both schools, coaches and fanbases likely view this as a moment to keep the season on track.  If not, the result may lead to a spiral effect the other direction.  You never like to play a team with its back against the wall, particularly one playing at home for the first time this season. 

My prediction: Jackets 28-21.  The Jackets also need this win badly.  In the end the Syracuse offense likely remains mostly inept with few ways to overcome their issues in 7 days.  Assuming there is no starting quarterback change in Upstate NY, the Jackets will be facing a statue quarterback who generally runs only to keep defenses honest.  Because of this, even if Georgia Tech turns the ball over, it may require an opportunistic Orange defense to aid its team in the scoring column. 

Recognizing the Orange woes on offense, Collins and Patenaude can call a more conservative gameplan offensively, enabling Sims and the offense to regain its confidence and avoid the volume of unnecessary mistakes that doomed the Jackets this past Saturday. The Jackets will come back to Atlanta undefeated in ACC play and with an opportunity to use a bye week to rest up for its most daunting stretch of the season.

Jahmyr Gibbs (21) runs for a touchdown (Hyosub Shin /

Atlanta, GA – Down six starters and depth at key positions, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (1-1, 1-0) faded late Saturday night in their first home tilt of the 2020 season.  The Central Florida Knights (1-0, 0-0), a respected top 25 program over the last few years, emerged victorious by a final score of 49-21.

The Jackets entered the game with gaps and question marks across its Above The Line (ATL) depth chart when compared to preseason expectations.  Absent from the offense today were starters RB Jordan Mason and TE Dylan Deveney.  Another TE, Dylan Leonard, was a scratch.

The damage done to the defense made matters worse.  Tech’s defensive line was missing starters DE Antonneous Clayton, DT TK Chimedza and DL Antwan Owens along with key rotational player DE Curtis Ryans, a key cog in the Jackets’ week 1 win against Florida State.  Tech’s top CB Tre Swilling also missed his second consecutive game.

“We had to get creative in practice this week… minimal 12 personnel on offense and three down linemen on defense,” said Head Coach Geoff Collins in his postgame interview with radioman Wiley Ballard.

Let’s be clear.  Neither Collins nor the players claimed moral victories.  Save those for today’s victor who is wont for fabricated titles and hardware.

For Tech the mantra is next man up.  The team fought valiantly, showing signs of life into the 4th quarter against an opponent that most outside of the Georgia Tech program expected to roll easily today.  A 33-yard touchdown run by true freshman RB Jahmyr Gibbs narrowed the Knights’ lead to 28-21 with 13:12 remaining in the game.  The home crowd was energized as was the home team.

But football games are won on the line of scrimmage, and Tech began with one hand tied behind its back on the defensive front.  Evidence of wear and tear to that unit showed itself late as the Knights’ vaunted offense reasserted itself in the 4th quarter, scoring three consecutive touchdowns immediately after Gibbs’ jaunt without much resistance.  Tech’s offense sputtered in response, and the final chapter of the story was written.

Despite the absence of key players, the Jackets had plenty of opportunities within their control to affect the outcome of the game.  Turnovers and special teams often determine college football games and today was no different.

Following an impressive first game despite a few mistakes, QB Jeff Sims led a Tech offense today that coughed up the ball five times.  Of the Jackets five turnovers, two came thru the air and three came via the ground game.

Special teams was a mixed bag.  Rarely is “mixed bag” a positive, however after the debacle in Tallahassee that descriptor is an improvement.  The Jackets must resolve its field goal issues to become a threat in the ACC this year and in the future.  See 2014.  Otherwise, “mixed bag” will lead to a new definition for “scoring range”.

There were certainly signs of light.  Jahmyr Gibbs lived up to his billing, ripping off a 75 yard kickoff return on his first collegiate touch.  Gibbs finished with 219 all purpose yards and two touchdowns. 

Tech’s offense has now shown a pattern of improvement as compared to last year.  Sims led the offense to 471 yards of total offense.  Nine different receivers caught balls for 244 yards thru the air, demonstrating a balance and proficiency without needing to rely on one or two playmakers.  To that end, noticeably absent despite the team success were WR Ahmarean Brown and WR Jalen Camp, each of which tallied a single reception for 11 yards.

The Jackets managed 12 chunk plays, defined as passing plays of 15+ yards and running plays of 10+ yards.  The distribution was an even 6 and 6, respectively.  Overall the offense produced 5.8 yards per play and converted 7 of 15 third downs.

Last but certainly not least, punter Pressley Harvin remained an “absolute unit”, averaging 51.2 yards per punt.  Of his four punts, three ended up inside the 20, with one boom ball traveling 70 yards.

Ultimately it was feast or famine on offense.  Combined with a shorthanded defense forced to play 92 plays, the flood gates opened late for Tech’s foe.  Next week brings Tech back into ACC play with a road trip to Syracuse and an opportunity to go 2-0 in ACC play.