Georgia Tech still has goals to reach, and Virginia stands in the way.
The Yellow Jackets host the Cavaliers in their final home game at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. In order for head coach Paul Johnson’s team to achieve its new set of goals, it can’t afford to slip up against the Coastal Division’s last-place team.
The Yellow Jackets (6-4, 3-4 ACC) became bowl eligible with last week’s win at Virginia Tech. That means they’ll be returning to the postseason after falling short last year and breaking an 18-year streak.
Johnson has had to convince the players that there’s still plenty at stake before the uniforms are collected and put away for good.
“I don’t think anybody on our team wanted to go 6-6 when the season started,” Johnson said. “You have goals, and you try to play for them.”
The preseason goal was to win the Coastal Division. That went out the window with a 1-3 start in the conference.
“My goal is that when it looks like those initial goals are gone, to find a carrot to stick in front of them to say, ‘Here is what we are trying to do now,’ ” Johnson said. “You start out 1-3 in the league, they can figure out you probably aren’t going to win your division, so you keep playing until you are mathematically eliminated.”
Once that happened, Johnson encouraged his team to reach for bowl eligibility and then to aim for a nine-win season. That could happen if the Yellow Jackets run the table, which would mean beating Virginia, Georgia and a bowl opponent.
“I told our team since that point that we have a chance to get to nine wins, which to the best of my recollection in the past 50 years, it has happened eight times,” Johnson said. “That is something special. If you can get to nine wins, it is a pretty successful season. Now, you did not get your goals, but if you look at it realistically, you have to say that is a pretty good year.”
Virginia (2-8, 1-5 ACC) looks like a pushover, but little has come easy to Georgia Tech this year. Virginia won last year’s game 27-21 to break a three-year Georgia Tech winning streak in the series. The Cavaliers have had a few close calls, losing by a touchdown or less to Connecticut, Louisville and Wake Forest.
“We have yet to play our best game on offense, defense and special teams all together, so that is the goal,” Johnson said. “We have talked about how we can get to .500 in the conference. That is certainly important to me, and I hope it is to them.”
The Georgia Tech defense, coming off perhaps its best game of the year, hopes to again come up with takeaways against a Virginia team that has struggled with ball control. Virginia has 20 turnovers and only 15 takeaways, leaving it last in the ACC at minus-five.
Virginia also has struggled to stop the run. The Cavaliers rank 12th in the ACC in rushing defense and allow 179.2 yards per game. That could be good news for a Georgia Tech offense that returns quarterback Justin Thomas and center Freddie Burden, two of the team’s seniors, along with A-back and kick returner J.J. Green.
Georgia Tech will still be without B-back Dedrick Mills, who is serving the final game of his two-game suspension. The Yellow Jackets likely will need another big game from Marcus Marshall, who started at B-back and rushed 19 times for 143 yards and a 56-yard touchdown.