Head coaches Paul Johnson and Charlie Strong will learn more about their respective teams on Saturday as Georgia Tech and South Florida square off in Tampa. Both teams collected easy victories over FCS schools to open the season, but this one is a true swing game.
In what will be the first matchup ever between the schools, the Bulls will look to prove that this season is more than just a rebuild. Over the last decade, USF has been no stranger to topping teams from the ACC with wins over Florida State, Miami, Clemson and Syracuse.
South Florida has finished in the AP Top 25 in each of the last two seasons, but with significant attrition on both sides of the ball, is expected to take a significant step back. The Yellow Jackets are looking to bounce back from a 5-6 finish a season ago in their 11th year under Johnson.
Georgia Tech at South Florida
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 8 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Georgia Tech -3
Three Things to Watch For
1. Georgia Tech rush offense vs. South Florida rush defense
For South Florida to have a chance for success on Saturday, it will need to be able to get the Yellow Jackets into passing situations on third down. Georgia Tech's triple-option attack requires discipline to defend, but the good news is Charlie Strong is a defensive guy. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall is experienced and has two very good backs in junior KirVonte Benson and freshman Jordan Mason. Georgia Tech currently ranks second in the country in rushing yards per game and has ranked in the top 10 nationally in every season under Johnson.
South Florida is young on defense as it replaces its top three tacklers and leader in tackles for a loss and sacks from last season. Linebacker Nico Sawtelle is the leader of the South Florida defense while junior defensive end Kirk Livingstone made his presence felt in the 34-14 win over FCS opponent Elon to open the year. The Bulls however, did give up 192 yards on the ground and a couple of big runs against the Phoenix.
2. Blake Barnett
Replacing arguably the best offensive player in South Florida history in dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers is no small task, but Barnett was up for the challenge in the season opener. Once a highly-touted prospect who played at Alabama, Barnett has been forced to take his lumps in Tampa, but he has a big arm and a world of potential. In his starting debut for USF, the junior quarterback passed for 305 yards and three touchdowns on 34 attempts and ran for a touchdown.
With top cornerback Lance Austin having graduated, Georgia Tech is incredibly young in the secondary and that’s an area that Barnett can exploit – even with a relatively young cast of skill players. As vital as it will be for the Bulls to slow down the Georgia Tech ground attack, it will be equally important for the Yellow Jackets to stop Barnett. Randall St. Felix was the leading receiver for USF last week with seven catches for 143 yards and a touchdown. Georgia Tech was a good team when it came to defending the pass a season ago.
If there was one area where Georgia Tech left something to be desired in its 41-0 victory over FCS opponent Alcorn State to start the season, it was the turnovers. The Yellow Jackets lost possession three times in the victory with two of those coming by way of fumble and one Marshall interception. The Yellow Jackets didn’t win the turnover battle in any of their six losses a year ago and were a combined minus-five overall in those contests.
The Bulls didn’t give the ball away a single time against Elon, but did take it away twice with interceptions from Mike Hampton and Vincent Jackson. USF was plus-10 as a team last season when it came to turnover margin, which ranked 15th in the country. Marshall has thrown just six career interceptions in now his second year as a starter, but all have come in his last five games. Over that stretch, the senior is averaging one interception in less than every 12 throws.
Playing this one in Tampa will be big for South Florida, but both teams will have a good chance to exploit the others’ perceived weaknesses on defense. If Georgia Tech can protect the ball, it should emerge victorious, but that is a big if. Whoever plays well early will have a real advantage in this one given the offensive styles of play. Blake Barnett will likely have another big game for South Florida, but on a hot day with a noon kickoff, the Yellow Jackets should be able to wear the Bulls’ defense down.