DURHAM, N.C. — Nobody saw this coming: Either Duke or Georgia Tech could still win the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division title.
The Yellow Jackets became afterthoughts following their 2-4 start. And not much is ever expected from a Duke football program that hasn’t had a winning season since 1994 – and already has been blown out four times.
But they’ll play this weekend in Atlanta in a game that’s surprisingly significant in the muddy division race.
“Nobody probably pictured us being in the position we are now,” Duke defensive end Dezmond Johnson said Tuesday. “Especially having a chance to play in the championship, I would think there were probably slim to none, people thinking we were going to be able to play this (meaningful) game or even be in (the chase).”
Yet here both teams are, still alive and hoping to face the Atlantic winner on Dec. 1 in Charlotte with an Orange Bowl berth on the line.
Duke (6-4, 3-3) will win the division if it beats both Georgia Tech (5-5, 4-3) and fellow Coastal contender Miami. North Carolina also can climb to 5-3 in the league, and while the Tar Heels are ineligible because of NCAA sanctions, they can factor into the standings and tiebreaker scenarios.
Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets will clinch a share of the title with a victory, but they’ll need some help to claim a third title-game berth since 2006.
Left for dead after losing four of their first six games – including a humbling 49-28 nonconference loss to Middle Tennessee State – Georgia Tech has thrust itself back into the title conversation by winning three of four, each by at least two touchdowns. That includes a 68-50 win over North Carolina in the highest-scoring game in ACC history.
“With the start we got off to this year, especially in the conference, we dug (ourselves) a huge hole,” coach Paul Johnson said. “With all the things that have happened and the balance in the league, especially in our division, we’ve been able to come back.”
Each of Duke’s four losses has come by at least 21 points – including back-to-back drubbings from the two Atlantic Division powers. No. 10 Florida State beat the Blue Devils 48-7 before No. 11 Clemson thumped them 56-20.
But during their off week, a couple of unexpected results put them back in control. In addition to Georgia Tech’s high-scoring affair, Virginia knocked off Miami 41-40.
“When you have these kinds of opportunities ... you best pay attention to it and take advantage of them, because they don’t come across your table all the time,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “So it qualifies as a very big game. Handling a big game is an art. That’s something that is a work in progress, and I’m anxious to see, as this week progresses, how this team handles this.
“It’s fun. It’s got to be fun,” he added. “If it’s not fun to do this, then we all need to rethink what we’re doing.”
Both teams want nothing more than to reverse a bit of history.
In each year since 2005, the winner of the Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech game went on to play in the title game. The Hokies won this year’s season-opening matchup in overtime before a free-fall sent them to their worst season since 1992.
For the Blue Devils, it runs a little deeper than that.
All they’ve had to play for in previous Novembers were moral victories. But this group has already clinched its first bowl berth since ‘94 — and now, it wants more.
Another victory will wrap up the Blue Devils’ first non-losing season since then. Two more will send them someplace they’ve never been — and, they hope, help them continue to shed their tradition of losing.
“If I’m talking to my cousin or something (and I) tell him I want to play in the ACC championship, and he’s like (sarcastically), ‘Oh, OK,’” cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “But that’s the nature of the beast. We are Duke football. We have not traditionally been a strong football school. ... We understand the recent history of Duke, and we’re trying to change that.”