ATLANTA — Georgia Tech delivered a strong finish with four straight wins, affirming coach Paul Johnson’s belief that a woeful 2015 season was an anomaly.
The Yellow Jackets’ next challenge is to prove they can maintain the momentum with a new quarterback in 2017.
Georgia Tech beat Kentucky 33-18 in Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl, and quarterback Justin Thomas ended his career with six wins in his last seven games.
The nine-win season helped distance the program from a 3-9 collapse in 2015 which led some to question the team’s direction under Johnson . For Thomas, the bowl season was a fitting end to his three-year run as a starter that began in 2014 with an Orange Bowl season.
“It’s great,” said Thomas of the turnaround. “I guess our first season we went out on a high note, had a great season. Last year, it was horrible. It was something that you wouldn’t want to experience. ... So just coming out, our class regrouping, getting the guys together, to come out of the season we had this year, I think it was a great turnaround, a great finish to our career.”
Thomas threw for 40 touchdowns in his career. He’s only the 39th player in NCAA history with at least 4,000 yards passing and 2,000 yards rushing. He also won two of his three starts against Georgia and was MVP of the Orange Bowl win over Mississippi State.
“Sometimes you have to be gone for a year or two before people really realize what you did,” Johnson said of Thomas. “There’s no question that he’ll go down as one of the greats at Georgia Tech. I mean, he’s had a heck of a career.”
Johnson said Thomas (5-foot-11, 185 pounds), who is hoping to have a shot at making an NFL roster, may be a future coach.
“He’s just been a joy to coach, a joy to work with,” Johnson said. “He’s got a great football mind. I think when he finishes playing football, he wants to coach. He’ll be really good at it.”
Georgia Tech’s streak of 18 straight bowl seasons ended last season, when Thomas had no experienced skill position players around him.
This season, three straight losses to Clemson, Miami and Pittsburgh left the Yellow Jackets 3-3 in mid-October. The strong finish included road wins at Virginia Tech and Georgia. Georgia Tech also beat Vanderbilt.
Johnson couldn’t resist mentioning the Yellow Jacket’s 3-0 record against Southeastern Conference Eastern Division teams, including in the bowl win.
Georgia Tech opens the 2017 season against Tennessee, another SEC East team, in Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
After running back Marcus Marshall announced his plans to transfer, freshman Dedrick Mills was left to dominate the carries against Kentucky. Mills proved he can thrive with a heavy workload, possibly setting the template for the 2017 offense.
Mills ran for 169 yards on 31 carries. He will be the lead back next season — if he avoids problems. Mills missed three games while serving two suspensions for violations of team rules.
“I think he can be a very special player,” Johnson said. “He’s a very talented young man. We’ve got to try to help him grow up.”
Thomas will be difficult to replace. The offense also loses center Freddie Burden. The defense loses defensive linemen Patrick Gamble, Francis Kallon and Rod Rook-Chungong and linebacker P.J. Davis. Kicker Harrison Butker and punter Ryan Rodwell also were seniors.
“Hopefully, we can take this and build on it,” Johnson said of the impressive finish. “We have a good nucleus returning, but we lose some really key players.”