Coach Paul Johnson’s team looks to continue its march toward bowl eligibility – and possibly the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game – today when Georgia Tech faces the Tar Heels in a pivotal Coastal Division matchup.
After winning two of three, the Yellow Jackets (4-5, 3-3) remain in the muddled division pack and can reach their third league title game since 2006, but they’ll need to sweep two Tobacco Road teams — they play host to Duke next week – and get some help.
If they don’t win two of their last three games – they finish the year against No. 5 Georgia – they’ll miss the postseason for the first time since 1996.
“We’ve got two conference games left. It’s time to talk about it,” Johnson said. “Certainly we’re not mathematically out of it by any stretch, but if we don’t win it won’t matter. You try to control what you can control and the big thing is going up there” to North Carolina.
The Tar Heels (6-3, 3-2) have known for months that this season will end in November, because of NCAA sanctions against the program, and they will still play a huge factor in the Coastal Division race – even if a new ACC policy won’t allow them to win it.
Despite that, the players insist they’ve got plenty to play for.
“We won’t lack motivation or focus,” North Carolina offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper said. “We have a bunch of goals – to be undefeated in Kenan Stadium, to have the best record we’ve had here in a long time, and we have a bunch of other things that will really culminate and make the season that much better.”
This game figures to come down to which team is best able to dictate its style. New coach Larry Fedora’s offense is known for scoring quickly while the Yellow Jackets and their run-first triple-option scheme prefers a slower, deliberate pace.
“You’ve got to limit the possessions. If you get 20 possessions a game (like North Carolina does), you’re going to score some points,” Johnson said. “They’re getting the ball twice as much as you’d get in a normal game. So you’ve got to keep your offense on the field and try to limit the game and do that. That would be number one.
“Second, you’ve got to try to contain the running game because if they get that going and they can do whatever they want, then they become very, very hard to stop,” he added.
That goes for both teams. As it always seems to do, Georgia Tech leads the conference with an average of 318 yards rushing. The Tar Heels are third with an average of 207, largely because of Gio Bernard.
He’s had four straight 100-yard games and is coming off a 135-yard performance against North Carolina State in which his biggest play came on special teams. His 74-yard punt return in the final minute lifted the Tar Heels to a 43-35 win, and last year he lit up the Yellow Jackets for 155 yards — a career high at the time — and two touchdowns.
“He’s the kind of guy, if you miss a tackle, he’s going to go the distance,” Johnson said. “The first guy’s not going to get him down every time so you have to keep the guys coming. Clearly, he’s the key to their success.”