DURHAM, N.C. — Don’t misunderstand. It’s not like Georgia Tech reached some new plateau Saturday. This isn’t the first time the Jackets have won 10 games in a season, nor the first time they’ve clinched a berth in the ACC title game, nor certainly the first time they’ve beaten Duke.
But there is a difference in 2009. A different feel about what’s going on. A different expectation for what comes next. A 10-1 record, a trip to Tampa, a 49-10 win over Duke — this is not as good as it’s going to get for Tech. There is no ceiling. Only three more potential wins.
“We’re not satisfied,” running back Jonathan Dwyer said. “We won the ACC Coastal Division today, and, don’t get me wrong, that’s good and we’re going to celebrate. But we haven’t finished what our main goals were, which is to win the ACC and be in a BCS bowl game, and then win the BCS bowl game. And right now our minds are on Georgia.”
Their minds were on Georgia three years ago. Just not like now. In 2006, the Jackets thumped Duke, 49-21. But even at 9-2, Chan Gailey didn’t have universal support. Even at 9-2, there was an uncertainty about the team, and the head coach, among the fan base.
In the next three games, it was reaffirmed why. The Jackets lost to Georgia (again). Then they lost to loss to Wake Forest in a dreary ACC championship game (9-6). Then they lost to West Virginia in the Gator Bowl. A 9-2 record with a No. 16 ranking turned into 9-5 and a mile from the top 25.
Gailey was given one more season by the new athletics director, Dan Radakovich. Then he was gone. Radakovich wanted a coach who would elevate the Jackets to higher ground and excite the fan base. When he hired Navy’s Paul Johnson, it was like plugging the program into a wall socket. Johnson has coached 24 games. He is 19-5. Cue the trumpets.
“Sure,” Johnson said when asked if he thought this was possible so soon. “We just missed it last year. … The thing these guys have done is they’ve bought in and worked hard. Sometimes I get after them. I got in the face of a couple of them today, even when the score got to be [one-sided]. They’ve learned to accept that and go on. Other kids might not. So my hats off to them. They’ve earned it.”
The Jackets stumbled out of the gate, falling behind 10-0. “We didn’t adjust,” Johnson said later, “we just started playing better.”
Duke punted on its next four possessions. Tech scored touchdowns on four of its next five. Game over.
Backups took over in the third quarter when the score grew to 42-10. It was welcome time off for the starters, who’ve labored for 16 straight weeks of practices and 11 straight games without a bye. Now, they can embrace the bye week before the Georgia game. The season could not have unfolded any better since that loss at Miami in Week 3. Tech has strung together eight straight wins and climbed to seventh in the rankings.
“We were devastated after losing that game,” said Dwyer, who in the past four games has rushed for 610 yards and six touchdowns. “Coach told us at that time that the good teams don’t lose two games in a row, and we’ve used that as momentum ever since.”
Long after the game, you could still hear Tech players shouting from outside the locker room.
“We’re excited,” Johnson said. “A lot of people have doubted them along the way, especially early. And they’ve just been resilient. Sometimes it’s not pretty, and they do some dumb things. But the bottom line is they found a way to win.”
Three years ago, we stopped counting wins after the Duke game. Nothing suggests that’s going to happen this time.