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Lackluster title game? Not so, says the ACC

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

TAMPA, Fla. -- Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson and Clemson's Dabo Swinney don't feel they have to the defend the honor of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Tonight's ACC championship game may not have national title implications of the SEC and Big 12, but the coaches for the 12th-ranked Yellow Jackets and No. 25 Tigers aren't going to apologize for how their teams got here.

Johnson and Swinney disagree with anyone who believes losing regular-season finales to SEC also-rans has taken some of the luster off what otherwise figures to be an entertaining matchup at Raymond James Stadium.

Georgia Tech (10-2) lost to struggling Georgia, plummeting out of the Top 10. Clemson (8-4) was trounced by instate rival South Carolina and nearly dropped out of the poll.

Johnson and Swinney's reaction? It's time to move on.

"Nebraska is playing in (the Big 12) championship game and they lost to Virginia Tech. Do they need to apologize? Pitt's playing for the Big East championship and lost to N.C. State. ... Stanford's had a pretty good year and they lost to Wake Forest," a defiant Johnson said Friday. "I can understand the story line because the teams played SEC teams. Last year, us and Clemson both beat Georgia and South Carolina and there didn't seem to be any kind of story line. No one was saying the ACC is dominant. Every team has good players."

Before stumbling, the Yellow Jackets and Tigers were two of the hottest teams in the country.

Georgia Tech had won eight straight since losing to Miami in September. Clemson was riding a six-game winning streak after losing three of five to start Swinney's first full season at the helm.

"I just laugh at it," Swinney said of the talk the matchup lacks appeal, especially on a day when the SEC and Big 12 titles are also being decided.

"Teams from our conference have had a lot of good wins this year. We didn't play very well, and I am sure Georgia Tech feels the same way. But we have to move on. It is all about this championship game. ... That is all that matters."

The winner will end a lengthy drought between league titles and earn a spot in the Orange Bowl.

Georgia Tech shared the ACC crown with Florida State in 1998, however the Yellow Jackets have not won the championship outright since 1990 -- the year before Clemson won its most recent title.

Tech won the regular season meeting 30-27 in Atlanta, kicking two fourth-quarter field goals after blowing a 24-0 lead as Clemson scored 27 consecutive points.

The Yellow Jackets and Tigers are the top two scoring teams in the conference. Georgia Tech is second in the nation in rushing at 305 yards per game, and Clemson's explosive offense features ACC player of the year C.J. Spiller, who has scored 16 touchdowns -- seven rushing, four receiving and five on kick returns.

Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer and Josh Nesbitt, a distant second to Spiller for conference player of the year, are on pace to become the first teammates in the ACC to rush for more than 1,000 yards since 1993.

But after giving up 339 yards on the ground during the loss to Georgia, it will be interesting to see whether the Yellow Jackets can make necessary adjustments to contain Spiller, who's close to becoming the first player in conference history with 1,000 yards rushing and 500 receiving in the same season.

"I'm concerned about everything, not just the defense," said Johnson, who is trying to get the Yellow Jackets into a major bowl for the first time since 1966, when Tech played in the Orange Bowl. "We've had a lot of shootouts this year."