Key stretch for Georgia Tech starts Saturday

When the ACC schedule was released this past February, Georgia Tech offensive lineman Will Jackson conceded he was, well, “a little bit perturbed.”

Four straight games against Coastal Division opponents. A bye week on just the second Saturday. Back to Clemson for a second straight season. And just five days to prepare for a Thursday night game against Virginia Tech -- after lining up against North Carolina.

“I don’t think they did us any favors, that’s for sure,” coach Paul Johnson said at the time, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The gauntlet starts now for the Jackets, who begin a four-week, season-defining stretch with Saturday’s game at Duke. Georgia Tech, which is coming off of a bye week, then has to face North Carolina, Virginia Tech on a Thursday night, and then travel to Miami -- the first of back-to-back road trips. By Oct. 6, the day after the Miami game, Georgia Tech will know where it stands in the ACC race. It’s the third time in the past four seasons that Georgia Tech has opened its conference play on the road, and a win in Durham will be critical to helping the team gain some momentum heading into the next four weeks.

“We obviously are fully aware that this stretch is huge for us to accomplish our goals as a team this season, but the most important thing is, it’s clich√©, but we’ve got to take it one game at a time,” said Jackson. “This Duke team is probably better than the bowl team they had last year. That’s 100 percent of our focus, coming out strong against Duke. If we don’t show up and we’re looking forward to North Carolina or Virginia Tech or Miami, then they’ll beat us. They deserve our full attention and that’s how we’ve prepared in practice.”

Georgia Tech returns 15 starters from last year’s team, which won the Coastal Division after both UNC and Miami were declared ineligible. This year, the goal is obviously to get back to the title game – without any help. Georgia Tech is undefeated against Duke under Johnson (5-0) and has won nine straight in the series. It’s become a more meaningful November game recently in the ACC, but this year, it’s setting up the race instead.

“It’s really important,” Johnson said of a win on Saturday. “It’s a conference game, a division game, and on the road as well, so if we can get off to a good start. … Last year we struggled early, we lost a couple of really close division games, and we dug ourselves a hole that was hard to get out of. Our goal is to try to get back to Charlotte, and certainly we need to win in Durham if we’re going to do that.”

Duke is 2-0 for the first time since 1998, and has not opened a season with three straight wins since 1994. The Blue Devils are coming off a 28-14 win at Memphis in which starting quarterback Anthony Boone broke his collarbone and was replaced by Brandon Connette, who will start on Saturday. It’s the first conference game for both programs, and both teams have shown defensive improvement from a year ago, but the spotlight will be on Duke’s defense as it tries to slow down a spread option offense that buried Elon 70-0 in a record-setting Week 1.

Duke has two turnovers in each of its first two games, with three fumble recoveries and one interception. Even more impressive, the Blue Devils have only allowed one touchdown so far. No doubt the competition will get tougher on Saturday.

“Certainly everybody talks about stopping the option offense, but what gets lost in that sometimes is they’re extremely well coached, extremely talented -- a bunch of athletes on both sides of the ball -- and an experienced football team,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe. “Your problems are big enough, and then added to it is playing an offense that’s different than what you see week to week.”

Expectations are higher for Georgia Tech this fall, with Vad Lee at quarterback and former Duke coach Ted Roof taking over at defensive coordinator. Those within the program are confident it can get back to the title game, but know there is little margin for error the next four weeks.

“I think we can definitely be a championship football team,” Jackson said. “You look at last year, and some people want to say we backed our way into it, that we didn’t deserve to be in the championship, but at the end of the day, we were playing for a conference championship and took Florida State down to the wire, a very good football team. I think this year’s team is better than last year’s team, so there’s no reason we can’t be a championship football team this year.”

The same can be said, though, for several teams in the Coastal Division -- and Georgia Tech will see most of them by mid-October.

“You look at it top to bottom, I think anybody can win it,” Jackson said. “Virginia didn’t do great last week, but they beat BYU, and you look at Miami, that just beat up on Florida. There’s a lot of talented teams from top to bottom. It’s going to be an interesting race.”

And it starts on Saturday.