TAMPA, Fla. — It all happened so quickly, Cord Howard barely had time to reflect on what exactly he had just seen.
“It’ll probably all dawn on me when I finally get on the plane,” the Georgia Tech offensive guard said, nearly an hour after one of the most emotional nights of his college career.
In fact, within that same hour, he and his teammates experienced a wide-ranging array of feelings that none of them had ever felt during their time with the Yellow Jackets. They were sentiments seemingly so powerful that years from now most may still struggle to articulate them.
“Words can’t even describe this right now,” said A-back Roddy Jones while sitting near Howard. “I don’t know what more to say about this night.”
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If Jones — typically a reporter’s dream interviewee — was rendered near speechless, the feelings that existed Saturday in Georgia Tech’s Raymond James Stadium locker room following its 39-34 ACC championship win must have been intense.
It is easy to understand why.
For starters, there were the feelings of desperation and near devastation as they watched Clemson running back C.J. Spiller stalk to a fourth ACC championship game touchdown en route to rattling off a performance worthy of game MVP and potential Heisman finalist status.
There were also different feelings — those of euphoria — when moments later, the Yellow Jackets witnessed one of their own sprint in for what proved to be the game-winning score.
With B-back Jonathan Dwyer’s 15-yard touchdown and a key sack from defensive end Derrick Morgan to end the ensuing Tigers series with mere seconds left, the Yellow Jackets finally were able to celebrate.
“I guess it all started in last year’s bowl game,” Dwyer said, referring to Georgia Tech’s 38-3 Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to LSU. “After getting embarrassed in the bowl game, everybody had the mentality that we were going to go for it the next year, and our No. 1 goal was to win the ACC and then our next goal was to win a bowl game.”
Securing Saturday night’s victory over its conference rival, Georgia Tech also wrapped up a spot in the BCS Orange Bowl to be held Jan. 5 in Miami. In the program’s first Orange Bowl berth since 1967, the Yellow Jackets will take on No. 10 Iowa.
Georgia Tech’s appearance in the game — which will be nationally televised from LandShark Stadium — is also its first in a major/BCS bowl since that Orange Bowl loss to Florida 43 years ago. It should also be noted that the BCS did not exist prior to 1998, but the Orange Bowl has long been included among the most-respected of bowl games.
If most college football fans — casual and diehard — had been asked two years ago today if they thought head coach Paul Johnson would have been able to lead the Yellow Jackets to such a mark this quickly, they likely would have laughed.
Less than six months after being introduced Dec. 7, 2007 as Georgia Tech’s newest head coach, Johnson was forced to listen to critics call his spread option offense a “high school” scheme that could not exist at a BCS school. Sure, it did well at Navy and he won national championships in the FCS at Georgia Southern, but none of that would translate at Georgia Tech, they argued.
Then, if that weren’t enough, he also had to see various publications pick his team to finish as bad as 3-9 during his inaugural season on The Flats. It was so overwhelming, his own players even had doubts.
“I know I didn’t think it was going to happen this fast,” redshirt freshman defensive tackle T.J. Barnes said Saturday. “I thought maybe by my junior year we would really start picking things up and doing things like this. But yeah, it is a little surprising to see it so fast.”
But then, there were others, like former team leader Darryl Richard, who saw things differently.
A senior on Georgia Tech’s heralded defensive line last season, Richard was among the first players to buy into Johnson’s scheme and encouraged his teammates to believe success could come quickly for the program.
The Yellow Jackets finished 2008 with a 9-4 record.
On Sunday, Richard was reveling with a little “I-told-you-so” statement.
The current NFL player wrote on his Facebook page Sunday that he had a “plate of crow” for those who hated on and doubted Johnson when Richard said the following on Nov. 1, 2008: “I think his teams in the future will compete for championships because it’s the way he programs a team. … I believe his system builds all the way from the offseason; how he makes men out of boys. It’s a mentality, and I think it’s showing up in football games.”
Moments after Saturday’s ACC title victory, Johnson expressed similar optimism over the Yellow Jackets’ future.
“Hopefully we’re building a program that will be here for a while,” he said. “That’s the idea.”
An Orange Bowl appearance in just two years seems to be doing that. At least, so says Howard, who will suit up as a Yellow Jackets player for the last time in next month’s game.
“I’m just so used to playing in so many different kinds of bowls,” Howard said, “but none like this.”
Georgia Tech will be allocated 17,500 tickets to the Orange Bowl, and they will run $125 each. They are available starting today on the school’s Web site, ramblinwreck.com. … The Yellow Jackets are 3-2 all-time in the Orange Bowl. … They also rejoined the AP’s top 10 in the latest rankings issued Sunday. They went from 12th to ninth nationally and settled at No. 10 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.