Georgia Tech (6-5) automatically claimed a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game on Monday when Miami self-imposed a postseason ban for the second straight year, looking to lessen the sanctions from an NCAA investigation into its compliance practices.
The Hurricanes (7-4) could have clinched the Coastal Division title with a victory over Duke, which would leave both Miami and the Yellow Jackets with 5-3 conference records. The Hurricanes were positioned to win the tiebreaker since they defeated Georgia Tech 42-36 on Sept. 22.
Now, it doesn’t matter. By banning itself from the bowls, Miami is ineligible to play in the Dec. 1 title game at Charlotte, N.C.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said after practice. “I’m proud of our guys. They won four conference games in a row, two of them on the road. It’s a case of persevering and just keep playing.”
Early on, the Yellow Jackets struggled. They gave up late leads to Virginia Tech and Miami, losing both games in overtime. There also was that embarrassing 49-28 defeat to Middle Tennessee, which came in the midst of Georgia Tech giving up more than 40 points in three straight games for the first time in school history.
With his team at 2-4 after a 47-31 loss to Clemson, Johnson fired defensive coordinator Al Groh, saying the defense was too complicated and the players weren’t sure of their assignments.
“We had a couple of disappointing losses at the beginning of the season, and we let it mushroom on us,” Johnson said. “It was good to bounce back.”
The defense continues to struggle but Georgia Tech has won three in a row overall, mostly on the legs of its explosive triple-option offense. The Yellow Jackets defeated North Carolina 68-50 two weeks ago, knocked off Duke 42-24 last Saturday and are averaging 38.6 points per game, which ranks 16th nationally. As usual, the run-oriented team ranks near the top of the country in rushing yards (third at 324.9, trailing only Army and Air Force).
Defensively, it’s another story. The Yellow Jackets are 61st in yards allowed (393.1) and 76th in points (29.6 per game), which could be a problem when they go against the Atlantic Division champion, No. 10 Florida State (10-1).
But no one is complaining about getting a shot to play in the Orange Bowl.
In an interesting twist, the Yellow Jackets benefited from another school’s wrongdoing just three years after losing an ACC crown under similar circumstances. Georgia Tech defeated Clemson in the 2009 title game, only to be stripped of the championship later when NCAA violations were discovered.
This Saturday, the Yellow Jackets will face No. 3 Georgia (10-1) in the regular-season finale. The Bulldogs have a shot at playing for the national title if they win the next two weeks, which has left both coaches with the chore of making sure their players don’t get caught looking ahead.
Johnson said that shouldn’t be a problem for his team.
“Our guys understand the importance of this game to our fans and our alumni and everyone involved,” he said. “Besides that, Georgia’s got a very talented football team. If you’re not ready to play, you’ll get embarrassed really fast.”
While plenty of ACC critics pointed to Georgia Tech’s appearance in the title game as a sign of the league’s weakness, Johnson wasn’t about concede that his team wasn’t deserving of its spot.
“We’re 5-3. Who else is better than that in our division?” Johnson asked. “I’m not apologizing for anything.”