Virginia Tech's Atlanta curse opens door for chaotic finish in ACC play

Publish date:

When Frank Beamer starts making his offseason vacation plans, you can bet that he's already crossed one city off the list of potential destinations: Atlanta.

It was six weeks ago, just a short MARTA ride away from Georgia Tech, when No. 4 Virginia Tech's national title aspirations took its first blow. Now a return to Atlanta has all but KO'd those chances,as the Hokies suffered a 28-23 loss to the No. 19 Yellow Jackets.

To make matters more confounding for the Hokies, they've gone from almost certain Coastal champions to needing to sweat out myriad of tiebreakers just to win the division with Miami, Va. Tech, GT and Virginia -- you know, the team that three weeks ago was among the worst in the nation -- all back in the mix. "What we did tonight was stay alive and put everyone else back in it," Jackets coach Paul Johnson said.

If an unusually cold autumn night in Dixie taught us anything, it's this: Stop trying to make sense of the ACC. Just stop it.

The thought was that Georgia Tech would have to get into another shootout to have any chance against the Hokies. It wasn't without merit. The Jackets' 82nd-ranked defense had allowed a combined 75 points in their last two wins, victories in which they scored a total of 91 points, and the conference's most prolific rushers would have to do it again to beat Virginia Tech.

That proved true. Sort of.

Johnson's triple-option did torch Virginia Tech, which allowed 47.3 rushing yards in the past three wins for 309 yards, including 122 and three touchdowns from the QB Nesbitt. But it was the much-maligned defense that carried Nesbitt and the offense through a sloppy first half, keying their first home win over a top-5 team since beating Joe Namath and No. 1 Alabama in 1962, when Johnson was five years old.

This week, Johnson discussed simplifying his Georgia Tech defense, saying that the multiple formations were putting players out of position, hence the 539 yards the unit gave up last week against Florida State. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack stripped things down and the Jackets responded, producing a remarkable turnaround in a week's time. They held the Hokies to just three first-half points, and while they did give up big plays, like a 66-yard TD run to Ryan Williams, they responded when it mattered, breaking up Tyrod Taylor's pass attempt on a two-point conversion which would have cut the deficit to three.

"We didn't do a lot, the guys played hard and flew to the ball," Johnson said. "We made some mistakes, but all-in-all those kids played well. Everybody knew what they were doing and showed up to play."

While Georgia Tech has salvaged its own division dreams, along with those of the Hurricanes and Cavaliers, this is a loss that for Virginia Tech, has clearly redefined their season and the possibilities.

Following the season-opening loss to Alabama at the nearby Georgia Dome, the Hokies rattled off five straight wins to vault back into the national title hunt. Based on projected BCS standings, Virginia Tech was directly behind Florida and Alabama, thanks to a daunting early schedule that included three ranked opponents. But that meteoric rise is for naught now, after the biggest offensive problems that plagued the Hokies in their loss to the Crimson Tide resurfaced against the Jackets.

Taylor, who coming in hadn't thrown an interception in his last 80 pass attempts threw two in the first half as he spent most of his night rolling out like he did vs. 'Bama to avoid a collapsing pocket. Without Taylor stretching the field, Williams was unable to truly get untracked, though he did finish with 100 yards, all but 34 coming on one run. The balanced attack that had produced no less than 31 points in the last three games was missing and it couldn't bail the Hokies out on a night when the defense was on its heels. "There were some different things going on, and a lot of it had to do with Georgia Tech," Beamer said. "A lot of it had to do with that No. 91 [GT defensive end Derrick Morgan] out there on defense. That's the way it is."

It's a loss that's ultimately, a blow for the ACC, which saw its last legitimate shot at making it to the BCS title game knocked out halfway through October. Sure, Miami is among the one-loss teams, but considering it has already lost to Virginia Tech and its one marquee win, over Oklahoma, is looking less and less impressive, it's a near-certainty that the ACC's chances are over.

Now, the best the Hokies can hope for is to win out against North Carolina, Maryland, N.C. State and Virginia, which have a combined record of 12-13 and hope that either the Jackets, Miami or Cavaliers slip up along the way just to make it to the ACC championship game.

Johnson came to Atlanta hounded by questions as to whether his triple-option was too passé and if it could compete against elite teams. He led the Jackets to nine wins and a bowl game in his first season, but now he's taken it a step further with the defining win of his brief tenure at Georgia Tech. Said Nesbitt, "[This is the] biggest thing since I have been here."

But it came at a cost for mother ACC. Though Virginia Tech's latest loss in Atlanta does post an interesting question: If somehow the Hokies were to receive an invitation to the city's Chick-fil-A Bowl, would it even take it?

My guess? Beamer would pass.