Let's set the ground rules here. I am not saying that Georgia Tech isn't a good team. I'm not saying that they aren't the best team in the ACC (although the margin isn't as wide as the rankings would indicate). I'm not saying that Paul Johnson isn't an outstanding coach. However, there is enough chatter about Tech playing for the national title if Teams X, Y, and Z lose that I need to pop this rhetorical bubble.
So let's say this plainly: Georgia Tech is not a national title contender, regardless of who loses. National title winners don't allow six yards per play. Remember that 2008 Oklahoma team that everyone ridiculed as having a bad defense? They allowed 5.2 yards per play and that was in an extreme offensive environment. This Tech team would have to play like '92 Alabama for the rest of the regular season to get into that neighborhood.
I like yards per play margin as an indica of a team's merits. Let's see how Tech stacks up with the other national title contenders:
Cincinnati - 7.4 / 4.7 / +2.7
Florida - 6.6 / 4.0 / +2.6
TCU - 6.5 / 4.0 / +2.5
Texas - 5.8 / 3.5 / +2.3
Alabama - 6.1 / 3.9 / +2.2
Boise State - 6.4 / 4.4 / +2.0
Georgia Tech - 6.3 / 6.0 / +0.3
Georgia Tech's yards per play margin is more like, oh, I don't know, the margin of their friends in Athens? Actually, that's not fair to Georgia. Georgia is 5.8 / 5.1 / +0.7 and Georgia fans want a Night of the Long Knives as soon as the season is over.
So how is Tech reveling in a top drawer season while Georgia fans are despondent? Schedule and luck. Georgia has played a tougher schedule, although the margin isn't enormous. The luck factor is a bigger deal. Georgia Tech has played in four games decided by one score and has won them all. That is a classic sign of an overvalued team. If Tech were even in close games, then their record would be 7-3, which is a truer reflection of this team's merit.
But let's dig a little deeper and look at a stat that has been shown time and again to be a result of pure luck: fumble recoveries. Reams of data have shown that there is no such thing as a player's or team's skill in recovering the ball once it's on the ground. Look at the national rankings for percentage of fumbles recovered on defense. Tech is 13th in the country, recovering 70.6% of the balls that their opponents have dropped on the ground. Take away three or four of the fumbles that the Jackets have recovered and I'd be willing to bet that you're going to swing at least one of those four close games. In contrast, Georgia is dead last nationally in fumble recovery margin and it's not even close. Georgia has recovered 9.1% of its opponents' fumbles; the next closest team has recovered 20%. In a fall in which Willie Martinez has been blamed for just about everything, this is one failing for which he is not responsible.
The percentage of fumbles recovered on offense paints a similar picture. Tech is 29th in the country at recovering their own fumbles, as they lose only 40% of the balls that they put on the ground. Again, add a few lost fumbles to the Jackets' totals and they aren't 9-1 anymore. Georgia is in the middle of the pack at recovering their own fumbles; they retain 47% of their drops.
In sum, Tech has been good this year, but they've also been lucky. They may ride that luck through the ACC Title Game and the Orange Bowl, but we should not be deluded into thinking that this team is on the same level as Alabama, Florida, Texas, and, yes, TCU. Maybe in a couple years if Johnson recruits sufficient talent on defense to make the Jackets above average on that side of the ball, the conclusion will be different. In 2009, the gap between 9-1 Georgia Tech and 5-4 Georgia isn't a chasm.
Now watch Tech beat UGA 51-7.