Georgia Tech was its own version of a Wreck this year during the Oct. 13 bye week.
The Yellow Jackets had sunk to 2-4 with only one conference win, had lost three straight games and fired their defensive coordinator. A bowl game seemed improbable, let alone a division title.
And yet here they are, preparing to face Atlantic Division champion Florida State on Saturday in the Dr Pepper ACC championship game for a chance to play in the Discover Orange Bowl. While some of Georgia Tech’s resurgence can be attributed to the weakness of the rest of the ACC and the ineligibility of Miami, the Jackets deserve credit for finishing strong and not coming unraveled despite a change in staff and being written off by many outside the program. Instead of folding, Georgia Tech finished the regular season by winning four straight ACC games -- its longest conference win streak in a season since 2009.
“I would say after that bye week, guys kind of buckled down and knew that we could still do it,” said A-back Orwin Smith. “Coach reminded us after the bye week that it wasn't over and we still had a shot and that he believed in us. I feel like after that bye week, guys actually changed their mindset and believed in themselves.”
The midseason firing of former defensive coordinator Al Groh came as a surprise (the timing of it, not the firing), but in retrospect, it became a turning point for the program. Groh’s defensive philosophy had been too complicated for the players, according to coach Paul Johnson, and the bye week was spent simplifying things and adjusting to new staff assignments. Groh’s departure didn’t magically fix all of Georgia Tech’s defensive problems (they are still allowing 30 points per game), but how the decision was handled internally was pivotal to the team’s comeback.
“Well, I think it could have gone either way, and clearly getting off to a good start in the second half was important,” Johnson said. “But you know, this group and the coaches and the guys, we haven't had very many losing seasons. I think that it was a goal to try to finish the thing off, and that's where we are now. We need to try to finish it off. We've got another opportunity on Saturday, and we've got to go see if we can't play a whole lot better than we did this past Saturday or we'll get the same result.”
Georgia Tech came out of the bye week and beat a struggling Boston College team only to lose the following week to BYU. By reeling off wins against Maryland, North Carolina and Duke, the Jackets were able to remain in contention for the Coastal Division title. Georgia Tech finished 5-3 in league play, but it’s not the first time a division champ has advanced to the title game with three losses.
It has happened three previous times since ACC divisional play began in 2005. Twice -- Virginia Tech in 2008 and Florida State in 2005 -- a 5-3 team has gone on to win the ACC championship game. Georgia Tech has finished 5-3 four times, but this is the first time it has won the division with that record.
Had Miami not self-imposed a postseason ban, the Hurricanes would have won the division title for the first time since joining the league.
Those within Georgia Tech’s program don’t seem to mind how they got to the title game.
“I mean, it's a championship game,” Smith said. “We're here. It doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter to me how we got here, and I'm pretty sure it doesn't matter to any of the other guys because this is a great opportunity, even if we was playing for the national championship [and] five teams got suspended. We're still going to treat it like we made it. It's a great time, and we're going to definitely enjoy it.”