ATLANTA — They still wear their rings, still consider themselves champions.
The record book tells a different story.
Officially, no team is listed in the spot for Atlantic Coast Conference champion of 2009, a title Georgia Tech won on the field but had stripped away this past summer when the NCAA found the school had used an ineligible player and, more troubling, tried to obstruct the investigation.
For the Yellow Jackets, the championship that wasn’t has loomed over the program all season. No one talks about it much, but it’s there, pushing this group to win a replacement crown for the one that got away.
“It would definitely feel good,” said Roddy Jones, a running back and fifth-year senior. “I’d be lying if I told you it wouldn’t feel good to get one after having it taken away.”
No. 22 Georgia Tech (7-2, 4-2 ACC) is getting closer, putting itself within two wins of likely getting back to the Dec. 3 championship game in Charlotte, N.C.
The biggest test comes Thursday night, when the Yellow Jackets host No. 12 Virginia Tech (8-1, 4-1) in what has all the makings of a Coastal Division play-in game. The winner will certainly have the inside track to reach Charlotte, assuming Virginia — the only other Coastal team with just two conference losses — drops one of its final four ACC games (a strong possibility with a road trip to Florida State and season finale against Virginia Tech still looming).
So, if Georgia Tech can beat the Hokies, it probably would need to merely take care of its ACC finale against last-place Duke to lock up a spot.
“We just want to get there first,” Jones said. “It’s obviously the goal at the beginning of the season.”
The Yellow Jackets started fast, winning the first six games for their best start since 1966. But they struggled to beat Maryland, and the troubling signs that emerged in that contest led to back-to-back losses at Virginia and Maryland.
Georgia Tech’s triple-option began to struggle as defenses focused their attention on stopping quarterback Tevin Washington from getting outside or making pitches to explosive A-backs such as Jones, Orwin Smith and Embry Peeples. With their run-oriented offense clogged up in the middle of the field, the Yellow Jackets looked especially inept in a 24-7 loss to Miami.
But just when the season seemed on the verge of falling apart, Georgia Tech turned things around with a stunning 31-17 upset of then-No. 6 Clemson last Saturday.
Now, with a weekend off to reflect on that brilliant performance, the Yellow Jackets know they’ve put themselves in the position they envisioned all along: playing perennial powerhouse Virginia Tech with the division title up for grabs.
“When we saw VT on the schedule in November, we wanted to be in position where this was a big game and it mattered. It does,” Jones said. “The winner will definitely have a leg up. If we win out, we’d still need a little help. ... But in order to have that conversation, we’ve got to win. We’re approaching it as the biggest game of the year. It’s kind of like our championship game.”
Two years ago, Georgia Tech won its division, defeated Clemson in a wild ACC title game and earned its first major postseason bid since the 1960s (the Yellow Jackets lost to Iowa in the Orange Bowl). For coach Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets, it was validation that an offense with its origins in the wishbone and veer attacks of the 1970s could succeed on a major college level.
The questions cropped up again when Georgia Tech slipped to 6-7 last year, and all the good feelings from the championship season were tempered further when the NCAA punished the program because star receiver Demaryius Thomas took $312 worth of clothing from a former Yellow Jackets player who was working as a sports agent.