There were no fireworks or confetti cannons. When Georgia Tech secured its spot in the ACC Championship game Monday, there may have been coffee.
“We were in a staff meeting this morning,” coach Paul Johnson said. “Somebody came in and said, ‘It’s official.’”
With that, Tech’s plans for the evening of Dec. 1 were finalized. Miami’s decision to self-impose a second consecutive bowl ban, an attempt to lessen the sting of potential NCAA sanctions from an investigation into a rogue booster, lifted the Yellow Jackets into the title game as the Coastal Division representative. The Jackets, who will play archrival Georgia Saturday in Athens, will play for its fourth ACC title against No. 10 Florida State in two Saturdays at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. (BCS ranking)
The berth alone is a considerable trophy for Tech, which six weeks ago was 2-4 and had lost three consecutive games in which it gave up 40-plus points in each, a first in team history. Johnson fired defensive coordinator Al Groh two days after the sixth game of the season, a 47-31 loss to Clemson.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Johnson said after Monday’s practice. “They won four conference games in a row and two of them on the road. It was a case of persevering and just keep playing.”
Following Tech’s 41-17 loss to BYU Oct. 27 that sank the Jackets’ record to 3-5, Johnson assured that “we’re not that far away.” Tech’s performance since then – three consecutive wins, the offense spitting out touchdowns and the defense showing signs of improvement – seems to confirm his assertion.
Since the ACC began divisional play in 2005, Tech is just the fourth team to earn a title-game spot with a 5-3 league record. Tech received a huge break when Virginia Tech, which opened the season with an overtime win over the Jackets, lost four league games for the first time since joining the ACC in 2004. Miami pulled out of the race with a 4-3 league record. Had the Hurricanes not done so, a win over Duke Saturday would have sent them to Charlotte over Tech.
Johnson said he wasn’t apologizing for anything. In response to a question about the line of thinking that Tech had won the division by default, Johnson responded, “We’re 5-3. Who else is better than that in our division? That’d be my answer. Miami’s not 5-3 yet, either.”
Tech and Georgia enter an unusual week in which both teams will be playing in their respective conference title games a week after their showdown Saturday. It’s a first for the rivalry.
“Right now, our focus is on Georgia, because if it’s not, we’ll go up there and get embarrassed,” Johnson said.
The ascension to the championship game clarifies Tech’s bowl picture, although not completely. The ACC champion advances to the Orange Bowl. By contractual agreement, the loser must go to one of the first three bowls in the ACC’s selection order after the BCS bowls – the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Russell Athletic Bowl (formerly the Champs Sports Bowl) or the Sun Bowl, Tech’s destination last season.
However, if Tech loses both to Georgia and Florida State, the Jackets would fall to 6-7 and drop below the .500 standard necessary for bowl eligibility. Last year, UCLA, which was 6-6 going into the Pac-12 title game, sought and received a waiver beforehand from the NCAA to be considered bowl-eligible in the event of a loss. The Bruins played their bowl with a 6-7 record.
Monday, Tech and ACC officials were preparing paperwork to file with the NCAA in case the Jackets lose to Georgia to fall to 6-6. The conference office had already been in contact with the NCAA.
In August, the NCAA approved a process to address the situation in which there are not enough bowl-eligible teams to fill the 35 bowl games, which could be the case this year with several teams ineligible due to NCAA sanctions. It casts some uncertainty onto a potential Tech petition, but Tech and ACC officials were confident that they would be able to secure a waiver if necessary.
The championship game will be Tech’s third, following its loss to Wake Forest in 2006 and its victory over Clemson in 2009, a win that the NCAA vacated as part of sanctions stemming from an investigation into improper benefits to two football players.
Tech last faced the Seminoles in two memorable games in 2008 and 2009, Johnson’s first two years at Tech. In 2008, the Jackets stopped a 12-game losing streak to FSU with a 31-28 victory at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Safety Cooper Taylor forced a fumble on what would have been a go-ahead touchdown run inside of the final minute of play. The next year, Tech defeated FSU in Tallahassee, Fla., 49-44 in a game most remembered for a lightning storm that halted action and a play in which quarterback Joshua Nesbitt ripped the football away from a Seminoles defender who had recovered a fumble.
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog