Georgia Tech makes statement with Orange Bowl win

MIAMI -- The cowbells stopped clanging soon after halftime, drowned out by one punishing run after another by Georgia Tech's oft-criticized but rarely slowed option. The Yellow Jackets took their punches against Mississippi State, but they kept punching back. That's what made it fun.

For years, Synjyn Days has heard opponents say his team was too soft to play against the mighty SEC.

Adam Gotsis, Tech's Australian defensive lineman, was thrust into the narrative quickly, too. Back home, no one knows the difference between the ACC and SEC, but in Georgia, it was a constant asterisk on the work the Yellow Jackets were trying to do.

Quarterback Justin Thomas is from Alabama, the heart of SEC country. He had to keep his decision to play at Georgia Tech under wraps for a while because his family didn't want to endure the jeers of their neighbors.

Even after Georgia Tech toppled a top-10 Georgia team in the regular-season finale, the SEC hype machine didn't evaporate.

"They said to wait until we played an SEC West team," tailback Zach Laskey recalled. "Well, we just dominated."

They intercepted Dak Prescott on the opening drive, scored on their first four drives of the second half and racked up 452 yards on the ground and 577 of total offense. Wednesday's Capital One Orange Bowl was an emphatic statement by the Yellow Jackets that the old narratives no longer apply.

"I think we're a top-10 football team for sure," coach Paul Johnson said as his team celebrated the 49-34 win to cap an 11-3 season. "I'm proud of these guys, and for at least a week or two, we don't have to hear about the SEC."

Johnson is a coach with a chip on his shoulder, and his team has followed his lead.

The year opened with Georgia Tech picked to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal, and Johnson's future at the school seemed to be in doubt. After two losses midway through the year, the Jackets were quickly written off again.

"Same old Georgia Tech," Days said. Even after they wrapped up the year with wins over Clemson and Georgia -- both ranked in the top 20 -- and nearly toppled undefeated Florida State, the Yellow Jackets arrived in South Florida as a decided underdog.

It's old hat for a coach who's made his living proving people wrong.

"To be truthful, I was at a little bit of a loss as to what everybody was talking about [early in the year]," Johnson said. "We don't ever get picked to win the thing, so that doesn't bother me. Sometimes people want to be negative. You just go about your business."

Business was good Wednesday.

Georgia Tech set an Orange Bowl record with its 452 yards on the ground, just the second time in the last decade a team ran for more than 400 against Mississippi State, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Yellow Jackets dominated the line of scrimmage, with 12 runs in which Mississippi State didn't make first contact until at least 10 yards downfield. They were physical and fast and everything the SEC gets credit for routinely.

Some players reveled in those comparisons.

"We got no respect, but that shows the ACC can play with anyone," Gotsis said.

Others shrugged it off. "I take pleasure in beating anybody," Thomas said.

But there was significance to this game for both the team and the conference. It was the fifth time this season an ACC team beat a nonconference opponent ranked in the top 10. The rest of the country has just two such wins. For the season so far, the ACC holds a 5-3 record against the mighty SEC.

For Georgia Tech though, this also felt like a turning point. At the start of the year, the option seemed a tired relic, the defense lacked playmakers, the energy seemed dulled. Now, Georgia Tech is riding high, with Thomas at the helm of an offense that looks nearly impossible to stop when he's clicking.

The quarterback is soft-spoken, careful not to say the wrong thing, but when the Orange Bowl was over, even Thomas admitted, "it felt like it was going really easy."

Before kickoff, former Tech linebacker Derrick Morgan addressed the team. He talked about building toward something, that this year's team could be the first step toward assembling a powerhouse.

"I think we crossed that border," A-back Deon Hill said afterward, "and we have a lot of room to grow."