When a college football program qualifies for a bowl, one of the benefits it gains, coaches will tell you, are the extra practices available to develop their players. It’s much like having spring football in December, coaches often say.
Isn’t that right, Paul Johnson?
“For us, it’s not going to be real important. They’re going to have a new coach,’’ the retiring Georgia Tech coach said amid laughter in Detroit, where he’ll coach his final game for the Yellow Jackets in the Quick Lane Bowl against the Gophers on Dec. 26.
Johnson and Gophers coach P.J. Fleck participated in a news conference on Wednesday at Ford Field, and both relayed a similar message. Try to win, but try to enjoy the bowl experience, too.
“I’ve always looked at bowl games as more of a reward than another spring practice,’’ Johnson said. “When we talk to our team about playing in a bowl game, certainly our No. 1 goal is to try to win the game. But I also want our team to enjoy it and have some fun.’’
Echoed Fleck, “It’s a reward. They’ve earned the right to be in a bowl game, and they need to have fun and need to be able to enjoy it. The last thing you want is have your players dread going to a bowl game.’’
How the two coaches go about balancing the desire to win and still have fun will play out over the next three weeks. Johnson expects his Yellow Jackets (7-5) to practice about 10 times, while Fleck said the Gophers (6-6) will have 12 or 13 practice sessions. “That won’t be the issue if we lose the game; it’ll be because Minnesota was better than us and played better than us,’’ Johnson said.
The Gophers practicing a few more times than the Yellow Jackets isn’t surprising because of a couple of reasons. First, the inexperience of the team. Fleck said he expects that up to eight freshmen on offense and five or six on defense will start in the bowl game. Second, the Gophers must prepare for an offense they rarely face – Georgia Tech’s run-heavy triple option.
“Playing Georgia Tech, especially on defense, is a major challenge – not only just because the players they have and the coaching they have, but the system and style is different,’’ Fleck said. “You change a little bit of your defensive system to be able to stop the triple option.’’
The Gophers haven’t faced a triple-option opponent in Fleck’s two years in Minnesota, but the coach did meet triple-option teams while at Western Michigan. The Broncos split against Georgia Southern, winning 49-31 in Kalamazoo in 2016 after falling 43-17 in Statesboro, Ga., in 2015. Western Michigan also lost 38-24 to Air Force in the 2014 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Johnson, 61, rode that throwback offense to an 82-59 record in 11 years at Georgia Tech, and the Yellow Jackets finished strong this season, winning six of their final eight games. Last week, Johnson announced was retiring, but that doesn’t mean he won’t coach again.
“This is my 40th straight year of coaching without a break. It’s probably time for a break,’’ he said. “… I’ll take a break and re-evaluate. Who knows? If it’s the last game, it’s the last game. If I decide I can’t live without it, I may come back.’’