Updated 9:55 a.m.
A team that wasn’t sure until Saturday night that it could play in a bowl is now bound for the ACC championship game. Georgia Tech learned this morning that Miami has decided to forgo postseason play, thereby handing the Coastal Division to the Yellow Jackets, who started 1-3 in league play and who still might finish the regular season 6-6.
It’s a stunning turn for a program that was reeling only six weeks ago. The Jackets had lost two ACC games in overtime after blowing late leads and been hammered at home by Middle Tennessee of the middling Sun Belt. Two days after his team lost at Clemson to slide to 2-4, Paul Johnson moved to fire Al Groh, his defensive coordinator of 2 1/2 years.
At that point the season seemed all but lost, but the Jackets steadied — well, after another home thrashing, this at the hands of BYU — and the schedule eased and events coalesced. (Virginia Tech lost to Florida State in the final minute; Miami lost at Virginia in the final seconds.) And here, wonder of wonders, the Jackets are. They’ll play Florida State on Dec. 1 in Charlotte for the right to represent the ACC in the Orange Bowl.
A cynic would say that Tech backed into the title of a weak division, but that would, at least at the moment, be only half-true. At worst, Tech will tie for first place. True, Miami held the tiebreaking edge over the Jackets, but a Duke victory over the Hurricanes on Saturday would hand Tech the Coastal title outright. (There’s a chance North Carolina can also tie for first place, but the Tar Heels have long been ineligible for the postseason due to NCAA penalities — and the Jackets beat them anyway.)
As for the weak division … no arguments. At this moment, only two of the four remaining Coastal teams — not counting Miami and North Carolina, who aren’t going anywhere — are bowl-eligible. The two best ACC teams by far have been Florida State and Clemson, and both reside in the Atlantic Division, and Tech didn’t have to play the Seminoles. (Then again, Georgia won the SEC East without having to play any of the four best teams in the West. Stuff happens.)
It would be wrong to suggest that Tech has had a great year. Johnson himself conceded as much after his team beat Duke on Saturday, saying: “Has the season turned out the way we wanted? Not to this point.” But this strange season will leave the Jackets playing for the ACC title, which they’ve done only twice — losing to Wake Forest in 2006 in the worst game ever played, beating Clemson in 2009 in a victory since vacated by NCAA sanctions — since the conference split into divisions in 2005.
Oh, and since you asked: Even if the Jackets lose both to Georgia and Florida State, they’ll almost certainly play in a bowl. The loser of a conference championship game can petition for bowl acceptance even if it’s under .500, and Tech expects that the granting of its petition would be a formality. UCLA lost the Pac-12 title game last season to fall to 6-7 but faced Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. (It lost that game, too, setting the stage for Jim Mora, of all people, to ride to the rescue.)
We can’t yet call this Tech season a triumph. Only twice before in Johnson’s 16 years as head coach had one of his teams — Navy in his first year there, Tech in 2010 — lost five regular-season games, and these Jackets were widely considered the second-best team in the Coastal Division when play began on Labor Day in Blacksburg, Va. They lost to Virginia Tech that night, which augured badly: The Tech-Tech winner had taken the Coastal title every year there has been a Coastal Division. Not this time, though.
The road wasn’t straight or smooth, but somehow Georgia Tech has found its way to Charlotte, which was the idea all along. As quarterback Tevin Washington said Saturday: “We still have all our goals on the board.” And sure enough, it’s still possible for the team that lost at home by three touchdowns to Middle Tennessee to …
Beat Georgia for the de facto state championship.
Beat Florida State for the ACC title.
Win the Orange Bowl.
Not saying any of the above will happen, let alone all of it. But it wasn’t so long ago — 16 days, to be exact — that Georgia Tech was under .500 and guaranteed of nothing beyond a 12th game. Now it gets to play a 13th and a 14th. Now it gets a chance, as the late great Ernie Johnson Sr. used to say of the Braves, to give us a finish.
And further still: Can Tech ruin Georgia’s season? It’s possible. But probable?
And, not to say I told you so: Pigskin pickin’ — Tech wins its division; Georgia takes the SEC.
By Mark Bradley