ATLANTA (AP) — A stunning season-opening loss to Northern Illinois has third-year Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins forced to defend the state of his rebuilding process.

The health of quarterback Jeff Sims could be a key to Collins’ hopes of showing progress in 2021.

Collins is 6-16 in his third season in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets, who play FCS state rival Kennesaw State on Saturday, have lost six of seven since a 2-2 start to the 2020 season. The latest loss was especially damaging to hopes the 2021 season could provide signs Collins can build a winning team.

Among low points in Collins’ three seasons, perhaps only a loss to The Citadel in his 2019 debut season compares with last Saturday’s 22-21 loss to Northern Illinois. Georgia Tech was favored by 18 1/2 points.

The visit from Kennesaw State was expected to generate momentum for Georgia Tech’s Atlantic Coast Conference opener at No. 6 Clemson on Sept. 18. Now, with new questions at quarterback, no one dares to look past Kennesaw State, which will be playing its first game against a Power 5 opponent.

Sims’ status against Kennesaw State is uncertain after he left the loss to Northern Illinois with an apparent left arm injury. Sims, a right-handed thrower, had his hand on his left elbow as he left the field. He had his left arm in a sling as he stood on the sideline for the second half.

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Collins said Tuesday he wouldn’t discuss injuries. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dave Pattenaude expressed confidence in Sims after Tuesday’s practice.

“I expect him to go out there and play a hell of a game on Saturday,” Pattenaude said.

Following the loss to Northern Illinois, Collins insisted he remained “100%” certain he would bring a winner to Georgia Tech. “It’s not if, it’s when,” he said.

On Tuesday, Collins again stressed “complete confidence” he’ll build a winning team. He cited his experience at Temple, where he was 15-10 in two seasons, as evidence.

“It’s going to be different at every place,” he said. “… The staff that was with us at Temple knows exactly where we are and knows exactly where we’re going and knows we’re going to get there.”

When he was hired in December 2018 following his time at Temple, Collins had to recruit new players to replace those signed to run the triple-option offense under Paul Johnson. The pro style offense has been built around Sims and running back Jahmyr Gibbs, who are in their second seasons.

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Jordan Yates passed and ran for touchdowns in a relief role after Sims left the game. Yates was more effective than Sims as a passer. Sims completed only 3 of 8 passes for 21 yards and was sacked twice before suffering the injury in the second quarter.

“I thought he was a little tight,” Pattenaude said of Sims. “… I thought he was trying to be a little too fine. He’s still a young kid.”

Yates played like a veteran as he completed 12 of 18 passes for 135 yards. He gave Pattenaude a scare as he was sent tumbling through the air at the end of a run for a first-down.

“He is fearless, maybe a little too fearless,” Pattenaude said. “I told him ‘Listen, you are not auditioning for the U.S. gymnastics team.’”

Yates’ performance wasn’t enough to save the Yellow Jackets.

“It’s a horrible feeling, keeping it real,” wide receiver Malachi Carter said.

“Honestly just we’ve got to forget about it. … The biggest thing is looking forward. We’ve got a long season ahead.”

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