ATLANTA — Georgia Tech will be looking to avoid another slow start in the Atlantic Coast Conference when it plays at Duke in its first of four consecutive games against Coastal Division opponents.
The string of four consecutive ACC Coastal Division games also includes North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Miami.
The Yellow Jackets lost to Florida State in last season’s ACC championship game after winning only one of their first four conference games.
Coach Paul Johnson said Tuesday he expects his players to focus on the importance of Saturday’s ACC opener at Duke. He said the Yellow Jackets should not be distracted by the fact Georgia Tech has won nine in a row, and 17 of 18, against Duke.
“We talk to the team about the importance of the game,” Johnson said. “It’s the first conference game, it’s a division game and a road game. Anytime you can win a division game on the road, that’s a bigger plus because then you're got the tie-breaker over that team.”
Georgia Tech (1-0) had an open week after beating FCS opponent Elon 70-0. That game might not have revealed much about the Yellow Jackets, but Johnson won’t have to wait long to learn more about his team’s ACC hopes.
The opening stretch of Coastal Division games ends with an Oct. 5 game at Miami. By then, the foundation of Georgia Tech’s ACC season will be set.
Johnson said he believes his defense, which starts seven seniors, has improved. Could this be another ACC championship contending team?
“I think you may have to play two, three or four games before you really know,” Johnson said. “Clearly the competition level is going to be way better this week than it was last week, but it may be a couple weeks before we really find out where we are. Certainly if we don’t play well we could lose on Saturday, that's for sure.”
The lopsided win over Elon was enough to impress Duke coach David Cutcliffe.
“I will say I think this is the most balanced and probably the best Georgia Tech team we’ve seen,” Cutcliffe said, adding the rout of Elon “could’ve been a lot worse.”
“It was about execution on both sides of the ball and in the kicking game,” Cutcliffe said. “They’ve improved themselves.”
Duke (2-0) is coming off a 28-14 win at Memphis.
One year ago, Duke had an extra week to prepare for Georgia Tech's spread-option offense and still lost 42-24. Duke’s last win in the series came in 2003 when first-year Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof was the Blue Devils’ coach.
“It’s a challenge because it's a completely different style of offense,” Cutcliffe said. “They do a great job. They do the best job consistently of creating big plays.”
Georgia Tech has rushed for more yards than any FBS school since Johnson brought the option-based offense to Atlanta in 2008.
Cutcliffe said he’s also concerned about the Yellow Jackets’ passing game with sophomore quarterback Vad Lee, a Durham, N.C., native and former Duke recruit.
“They’re a great play-action pass team, particularly with a quarterback like Vad who has such a strong arm and can get downfield with the ball,”Cutcliffe said.
“So you get mesmerized with stopping the run ... and as soon as you get mesmerized you're going to get challenged in the passing game. It’s a huge challenge for our defense. We've got a lot of work left to do.”
Predictably, Johnson isn’t talking about the four-game stretch of division games. He was focused on Duke as the first step on Georgia Tech’s plans for another try at the ACC title.
“Our guys understand it's a big game,” Johnson said. “They’ve set goals. They want to get back to Charlotte and we need to win this game if that’s going to be one of the goals.”
“Our big challenge this week is to go up there and play like Georgia Tech can play,”Johnson said. “Take care of the ball and we’ll find out a little bit more about where we’re at this week. The competition level certainly ratchets up.”