Sitting at 2-4 at the midway point of the season, the idea that the ACC title was even a remote possibility for Georgia Tech may have been met with laughter. Laugh no more as Tech won its final four conference games to finish ACC play with a 5-3 record, tying North Carolina and Miami, both ineligible to play in the postseason, for tops in the Coastal Division. With Miami holding the tiebreaker after winning the regular season matchup between the two teams, the program had the decision to either take the division crown or once again self-impose a postseason ban. Miami tried to head off at the pass NCAA sanctions that may still may occur as a result of the scandal surrounding the program and former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro, who is accused of providing improper benefits to dozens of Hurricanes players for nearly a decade. Miami officials ultimately decided to remove the program from postseason play once again, giving Georgia Tech an unlikely division crown and a date with the Florida State Seminoles in the ACC Championship game. The winner will earn the conference’s automatic bid in the BCS’ Discover Orange Bowl.
Unfortunately for the Jackets, their 6-6 record has put them in a spot that mirrors a similar situation from last season with UCLA, who found themselves in the Pac-12 title game against Oregon despite a 6-6 record. USC played the part of Miami, ineligible for postseason play despite a superior record. If the Jackets lose to the Seminoles on Saturday, their record falls to 6-7, technically making them bowl-ineligible despite making the ACC Championship game. UCLA lost to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game last season, dropping them to 6-7 and requiring an NCAA exemption in order to play in a bowl game. The Jackets would require that same exemption in order to qualify for a bowl, and, depending on the amount of 6-6 bowl-eligible teams, Paul Johnson’s team may not be granted one, thus snapping the Jackets’ bowl streak.
Coming off a poor showing in their loss to rival Georgia this past Saturday, the Jackets have several areas of improvement that must be addressed for them to have a chance at knocking off the Seminoles. Florida State also suffered a loss to an in-state rival last Saturday after allowing the Florida Gators to rattle off 24-straight points in the fourth quarter. Normally known for a stout defense which allowed just 15.1 points per game during the season, the Seminoles were exposed by a Gator offense that had looked lackluster for much of the season and wasn’t even in the top-75 in the nation in points per game. The key for the Jackets will be to find a way to further expose the reeling Seminoles defense, which entered the game against Florida averaging just over 70 rushing yards per game. The Gators run game punished Florida State for 244 yards on the ground. Georgia Tech’s third-ranked rushing attack, which enters Saturday’s game averaging 323.3 yards per game, managed to grind out 306 yards in the 42-10 loss to the Bulldogs
One big question for Tech will be the availability of senior A-back Orwin Smith, who missed the game against the Bulldogs due to an ankle injury. Smith has been instrumental to the triple-option attack throughout his Georgia Tech career and his presence is imperative for the Jackets to find success against the Seminoles defensive line. Smith has returned to practice and is hopeful that he will be available for the game. Another question is the quarterback position, which saw both Tevin Washington and Vad Lee take plenty of snaps against Georgia. Despite both players looking solid in the team’s previous two games against North Carolina and Duke, it’s likely that Johnson will continue to split snaps between the two and ride the hot hand for much of the game. This would seemingly favor Washington, who has shown a better passing game as of late, boasting a higher quarterback rating and completion percentage over the less-experienced Lee. While not know as much for the pass, the Jackets offense may have to resort to going to the skies if the Seminoles begin to show some semblance of defensive prowess that helped them shut down the run game for much of the season.
The Jackets’ defense, which has been more than questionable, faces a Seminole offense that averages over 40 points per game, led by quarterback EJ Manuel. The senior has thrown for 2,967 yards and 22 touchdowns, both career highs. Tech has surrendered 30.7 points per game and has allowed 248 passing yards per game. The Seminoles could also look to take advantage of the Jackets’ run defense, which has surrendered 143.9 yards per game. Florida State has a trio of running backs, Chris Thompson, Devonta Freeman, and James Wilder Jr., that has collectively rushed for nearly 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns. Florida State has a multitude of ways that it can beat you and the Jackets will have to find ways to slow down both aspects of the FSU offense in order to find success defensively. If they are unable to do so, then the Jackets’ best form of defense may be relying on their high-octane, triple-option offense to put up points in bunches.
The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets face a tough task in order to deny the 10-2 Seminoles the ACC Championship, but judging on how this season has unfolded, anything is possible for Johnson’s resilient team. A berth in the Orange Bowl awaits the winner and the possibility of seeing this Tech team in that bowl game puts a strange cap on this roller coaster of a season.