ATLANTA -- For all the progress that has been made under coach George O'Leary, Georgia Tech's football program still isn't recognized as a Southern power.
The Yellow Jackets haven't beaten Florida State or Georgia, and until they do, they'll be seen as inferior to the "Big Football Schools" by the many fans who don't put much stock in wins on basketball-famous Tobacco Road.
The next chance to change perceptions comes tonight, when the No. 6 Seminoles (6-1 overall, 3-1 ACC) visit Bobby Dodd Stadium in a game that has ACC championship and major bowl implications (7 p.m., ESPN).
"Florida State has been good for many, many years," O'Leary said. "It's not just the ACC that has trouble with them. Everybody else does, too. They're very well coached, and those All-Americans there play well. And they replace them with All-Americans."
Yes, FSU lost at North Carolina State 24-7 on Sept. 12. But it may have been lulled to sleep by the soft competition it has faced for so many years in the ACC. Since the N.C. State game, the Seminoles have beaten Duke 62-13, Maryland 24-10 and Clemson 48-0. The big tractor is rolling again.
Tech (5-1, 4-0) whipped the team that whipped FSU (then-No. 23 N.C. State two weeks ago) and upset No. 6 Virginia at home last week, yet sits only 20th in the AP poll. Despite scoring more than 40 points in each of its last five games and setting an NCAA record with five fumbles returned for touchdowns in five games, the Jackets are 12 1/2 -point underdogs.
Oh, what a win would do for the Tech program.
"They've had our number the last four or five years, and I just think we need to get past this team," said quarterback and great hope Joe Hamilton. "They're one of the elite teams. That's what we want to be."
Getting there won't be easy. Tech has lost all six meetings with FSU since it joined the ACC in 1992, and by an average score of 42-9. The last two results at Bobby Dodd Stadium were 41-10 and 49-3.
Similarly, Tech has lost seven in a row to the only SEC team it plays regularly -- Georgia -- and some of those scores have been lopsided. Not since 1992, when they beat No. 17 Stanford in the Aloha Bowl, have the Jackets defeated a ranked school from outside the Carolinas, Virginia or Maryland.
The bottom line is that Tech hasn't been able to match up athletically with FSU. In last year's 38-0 Seminole win in Tallahassee, Thad Busby threw touchdown passes of 66, 47, 20 and 18 yards. Tech's offense, so good against most of the rest of the ACC, managed 144 yards.
"Their team speed is just incredible," Tech receiver Dez White said. "That's one of the things we have to overcome. We're going to have to make up for it in other areas."
Said defensive end Nate Stimson, "I don't know if there's a big talent gap, but they have more talent than we do. If I didn't say that, I'd be lying. Their (second team) could start for most teams."
Will this year be different?
FSU could be more vulnerable in that it is younger and less experienced at quarterback with 26-year-old sophomore Chris Weinke. Tech, on the other hand, is more experienced on offense, particularly on the line, and has the ACC's pass-efficiency leader in Hamilton. Tech's offense, which uses dozens of formations and elements of everything from the wishbone to the run and shoot, can be difficult to prepare for.
Conversely, the Jackets' defense is last in the ACC and 92nd nationally. How will it contain the likes of tailback Travis Minor and receivers Peter Warrick and Laveranues Coles?
"To beat them, you need big-play people," O'Leary said. "I don't think you can line up and slug it down on the field. They play too well on defense to do that."
Big plays by big-play people. Now that would turn Tech into a football power.
Tony Fabrizio is based in Atlanta and can be reached at email@example.com
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