ATLANTA — Duke and Georgia Tech will report to Bobby Dodd Stadium as flawed teams with championship hopes.
After today’s game, one of the two teams will still have a shot at playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
Duke (6-4, 3-3 ACC) is coming off losses to Florida State and Clemson by the combined margin of 77 points. Even so, the Blue Devils control their fate in the ACC’s Coastal Division race.
If Duke wins today and beats Miami next week, it will play in the Dec. 1 ACC Championship Game.
Georgia Tech (5-5, 4-3) has won back-to-back games to re-emerge as a contender despite continued poor defense. The Yellow Jackets have allowed more than 40 points in five games, including last week’s wild 68-50 win at North Carolina.
Each team sees the game as an unexpected opportunity.
“Anything can happen,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “You know, there’s a lot of parity in our league and I’m just glad we are a part of it.”
Georgia Tech’s season appeared lost when it was 2-4 after three consecutive losses, including an embarrassing 49-28 home loss to Middle Tennessee State.
Instead, the Yellow Jackets could qualify for their 16th consecutive bowl by beating Duke. Georgia Tech still would need help from a Duke win over Miami (5-5, 4-3) next week for the Yellow Jackets to earn a spot in the ACC Championship Game.
Freshman quarterback Vad Lee said Georgia Tech players are surprised to be in the ACC race.
“It’s very surprising,” Lee said. “If you would have told us two weeks ago that we would be in this situation, we probably wouldn’t have believed it. Things have been working for us and we’re right in the hunt. It’s a very motivating factor for us as we move forward. I think we’ll just be ready to play our best game of the season.”
Miami would win a tie-breaker with Georgia Tech, thanks to its 42-36 overtime win over the Yellow Jackets on Sept. 22, if each team finishes 5-3 in the league.
At least Georgia Tech has a shot.
“With the start we got off to this year, especially in the conference, we dug ourselves a huge hole,” said coach Paul Johnson. “With all the things that have happened and the balance in the league, especially in our division, we’ve been able to come back.”
The Yellow Jackets’ win over North Carolina was the highest-scoring game in ACC history. There’s no reason to expect Johnson’s spread-option offense will face more resistance this week.
Georgia Tech’s defense has struggled, but it is statistically better than Duke’s unit, which ranks last in the ACC with its average of 32.6 points allowed.
The Yellow Jackets’ defense, which allows 30.2 points per game, has been so bad Johnson had to make a midseason change on his staff. Johnson fired defensive coordinator Al Groh and promoted Charles Kelly to direct the unit on an interim basis.
The defense showed no improvement in a 41-17 home loss to Brigham Young on Oct. 27 and last week’s slugfest against North Carolina. Georgia Tech’s best defense is a good offense, and redshirt freshman quarterback Vad Lee has given the unit a lift.
Senior Tevin Washington has started every game, but Lee’s playing time continues to rise. He took over for Washington after only two possessions last week and played the remainder of the game. Lee ran for 112 yards with two touchdowns and passed for 169 yards with a touchdown.
Lee, from Durham, N.C., was recruited by Duke. Cutcliffe didn’t have to look at last week’s Georgia Tech-North Carolina film to understand the quarterback’s dual-threat skills.
Cutcliffe looked at the film anyway. Bad idea.
“Well, you just don’t sleep after you watch that,” Cutcliffe said. “You go to the store and try to talk to the pharmacist out of some Ambien is about all you can do.”
Lee’s threat as a passer adds difficulty to the challenge of defending the spread option. With Washington, who has 17 rushing touchdowns, it’s a run-first attack. With Lee, the secondary must give the Yellow Jackets’ receivers more respect.
“It’s pretty nightmarish,” Cutcliffe said. “I think the thing that you have to do is just be consistent and like any time if you’re playing a good offense, if you don’t tackle well and you don’t play good technique, you have no chance.”
Duke senior Sean Renfree has passed for 2,125 yards with 12 touchdowns. Sophomore Jamison Crowder and senior Conner Vernon each has more than 800 yards receiving. The two have combined for 11 touchdown receptions.
Cutcliffe said he wasn’t offended by the suggestion that Duke is proof there’s not an elite team in the Coastal Division or the league is down this year.
“I chuckle at it, I do, myself and we kind of find that a little bit of fun,” Cutcliffe said. “This business is hard so you might as well make it fun and it does make me chuckle.
“We have a good football team, but we are not great football team just yet. ... We are a work-in-progress, and as I said, we are just very proud and happy to be part of something in November that’s meaningful.”