DURHAM, N.C. -- From doormat to decent team, Duke has come pretty far in two seasons under David Cutcliffe.
During that same time period, Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech may have made even more progress.
The seventh-ranked Yellow Jackets can wrap up the Coastal Division and a berth in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game with a win Saturday against a Blue Devils team in need of at least one monumental upset to qualify for its first bowl game in 15 years.
"Obviously, we don't want them to clinch, regardless if it's on our field," Duke tight end Brandon King said. "We know that we need to do our part if we want to get there. So we're not going to go out there saying, 'We don't want them to clinch it on our field.' We want to go out there saying, 'We want to make a step forward so we can clinch, so we can get there.' It's more a proactive approach."
That a mid-November game has deep significance for both Georgia Tech (9-1, 6-1) and Duke (5-4, 3-2) shows how much progress both programs have made since they fired their former coaches on the same day in November 2007 and made their current hires within a week of each other.
Johnson has guided the Yellow Jackets, winners of seven straight, to their highest national ranking in a decade. After last week's overtime escape against Wake Forest, they're one step from closing out the division race and clinching their second ACC title game appearance in four years.
"I'm nervous every week," Johnson said. "The way I look at it, if we don't win last week (against Wake Forest), then we're not going to win anyway. That's just the way I look at it. I mean, could we lose the (Duke) game and still win? Maybe, but I haven't looked at it like that. Since we lost at Miami, I've told the guys every Monday this game is single-elimination. This is playoffs. And that's the way we've tried to focus."
Duke was rolling for a while, too, winning three straight to vault into the bowl conversation before last week's 19-6 loss at rival North Carolina dropped the Blue Devils into a funk. Whatever momentum they had, Cutcliffe said, "just came to a dead silence."
Still, a season that began with a loss to Championship Subdivision member Richmond could end in a bowl game -- but only if Cutcliffe's team wins two of its final three against a schedule that includes the Yellow Jackets, No. 12 Miami and Wake Forest.
The Blue Devils will have to buck history to make that happen. They haven't beaten a ranked team since 1994 -- also the last time they played in the postseason -- and have lost 13 of 14 in the series against Georgia Tech.
The only win in that stretch was a surprising 41-17 rout in 2003, and Duke is still looking for its first points against a Johnson-coached Georgia Tech team. The Yellow Jackets held the Blue Devils to 132 total yards in a 27-0 victory last year, a game in which eventual ACC player of the year Jonathan Dwyer rushed for 159 yards.
His numbers aren't quite that gaudy this season -- though he's still averaging 109 yards on the ground -- partly because quarterback Josh Nesbitt has emerged as a formidable force both to throw and to rush. Nesbitt is averaging 204 total yards and is the ACC's fifth-leading rusher, the highest spot held by a non-running back.
Nesbitt's 3-yard touchdown run in overtime, one play after his gutsy first-down conversion on a fourth-and-1, gave Georgia Tech a dramatic victory and kept their big season on track. The Yellow Jackets haven't won an outright ACC title since 1990, when the coaches voted them the national champion.
"We got away with one," Johnson said. "Now sometimes, if you're going to have a special season, you need that to happen. Let's make sure we don't do it again. Let's make sure we play our best game next week."