The ship had sailed. The credits were rolling. Georgia Tech’s shot at an ACC title was smashed into pieces.
It’s what fans thought. After Clemson overpowered the Yellow Jackets Oct. 6, it’s what players thought, too.
“Three losses back-to-back and some in conference play, and we were just like, Nah, there’s no bouncing back for this season,” inside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said. “Let’s just try to go to a bowl game.”
Tech still had a path to win the ACC Coastal Division and claim the conference title, its primary goal for the season. But the Jackets had to be perfect in the conference and also required help in the form of Virginia Tech’s worst season since 1992. That’s all.
“Our team chaplain, Derrick Moore, he does a great job,” quarterback Vad Lee said. “He’d be in the locker room saying, ‘Our goals are still alive,’ even after we’d had all these losses, and everybody’s looking at him like he’s crazy.”
The Hokies collapsed, the Jackets have walked the path and no one is looking askance at the chaplain now. Tech plays Duke Saturday in its final home game of the season with a record of 5-5 overall and 4-3 in the ACC. At the least, a win secures the Jackets bowl eligibility and a share of the Coastal Division title. At best, if Duke beats Miami Nov. 24 or the Hurricanes self-impose a postseason ban as part of sanctions resulting from an NCAA investigation, the Jackets will be in Charlotte Dec. 1 to play for the ACC title – the same Jackets who lost by 21 points at home to Middle Tennessee State, made necessary the firing of defensive coordinator Al Groh and incited the more impatient segments of the Tech fan base (and maybe some of the patient ones, too) to call for coach Paul Johnson’s firing.
“We had some inspiring wins, played some tough games, experienced some tough losses, experienced some very uppity moments, some happy moments,” senior defensive Izaan Cross said. “It’s been like this.”
With that, Cross made a wave pattern with his hand. With three wins in the past four games, Tech is cresting. Tech throttled North Carolina last Saturday 68-50, the most points it has scored in any of its 228 ACC games. (It was also the fourth most points Tech had allowed in an ACC game.)
Saturday’s game, senior day for Cross and his 11 classmates, can either continue to lift the Jackets or usher them into descent.
The reality of Tech’s second-half resurgence is that the Jackets’ position is still precarious. Despite having played more than 80 percent of the regular season, Tech couldn’t write the first words of a 2012 synopsis, unless they were “strange season.”
In two weeks’ time, Johnson’s team could be celebrating a stunning rebirth that sends them to the Orange Bowl. Or, in a week, they could be lamenting a squandered season and the end of their 15-game bowl streak.
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot,” said Cross, his Tech career whittled down to its last few games. “A lot at stake on this game, for sure.”
The Blue Devils arrive at the third Saturday of November with similar dissonance. In coach David Cutcliffe’s fifth season, Duke has earned its first bowl bid since 1994, but also has been routed in three of its past four games. The Blue Devils, too, can win the Coastal with their first win over the Jackets since 2003 and a follow-up win over the Hurricanes.
The Blue Devils are an unlikely partner, but it’s fair to call this Tech’s most meaningful game since the 2010 Orange Bowl.
“We’re trying to treat it that way,” Cross said. “I know the coaches, especially the defensive side of the ball, are making a big emphasis on that. Coach Johnson just said, ‘If you can’t get up for this game, then you don’t deserve a heartbeat.’”
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Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog