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Jackets, Tigers stumble into ACC Championship

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- This was not what Georgia Tech, Clemson or the Atlantic Coast Conference hoped for heading into the league championship game.

Both ACC division winners were beaten by their in-state, Southeastern Conference rivals and had large holes exposed that must be fixed by Saturday's showdown in Tampa, Fla.

Georgia rushed for 339 yards in its 30-24 victory over the 12th-ranked Yellow Jackets (10-2). South Carolina ran for 223 yards in its 34-17 win over No. 25 Clemson (8-4), the second highest total allowed by the Tigers this season.

"You can make of it what you want," Tech coach Paul Johnson said Sunday. "A year ago, we beat Georgia and Clemson beat South Carolina and nobody made a big deal about the SEC being diminished."

Then again, SEC teams have won the past three national titles -- Florida in 2006 and 2008, LSU in 2007 -- and are on track to play for it again with a pair of unbeatens, the top-ranked Gators and No. 2 Alabama set to tangle in that league's title contest. It's a hard act to challenge in the football crazed Southeast.

Georgia Tech slipped five spots this week in the Top 25. Clemson fell 10 positions.

Johnson's not prepared to surrender anything to the higher-profile SEC.

"Give them credit, we got beat last night, but I don't think it was a dominating, steamroll performance," he said. "They played better than we did and that's what happens. Last year, we played better than they did."

Tiger coach Dabo Swinney has too many other things to fret over to spend any time considering the ACC's stature.

"I don't worry about that all," said Swinney, an Alabama grad who was a walk-on receiver for the 1992 national champs. "The SEC's a great conference, so is the ACC. I can assure you, if you line to play an SEC team or an ACC team, you better bring your 'A' game because if you don't you're going to get beat."

Players for both the Yellow Jackets and Tigers swore last week they had their focus squarely on their rivals and weren't peaking ahead to the championship game. Neither looked sharp early and it cost them.

Georgia Tech trailed 17-3 at the half and could not rally past the Bulldogs. Clemson was down 24-7 through three quarters and its explosive offense was limited to 138 yards in that stretch.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who knows something about coaching in conference title games, said Saturday the Gamecocks caught Clemson "at the right time" between their division-clinching day against Virginia a week earlier and the ACC's big game this Saturday.

Probably the most troubling aspects for Johnson and Swinney were the defensive performances.

The Yellow Jackets gave up more than double their season average (135 yards a game) in rushing yards to Georgia. The Tigers were also stung on the defensive side, allowing almost as many yards on the ground to South Carolina as they do overall on average this season.

"Did not play well in our season finale, so a lot to get corrected and coached up," Swinney said.

The game will be a rematch of a Thursday night nail-biter in Atlanta back on Sept. 10. Georgia Tech took a 24-0 lead against the Tigers. Clemson rallied with the next 27 points to pull in front before two fourth-quarter field goals by Scott Blair sent the Jackets out a winner, 30-27.

"These games have been some humdingers," Swinney said.

Both Johnson and Swinney said their teams would quickly refocus on what's ahead, even sharing the same coach-speak phraseology, "Turn the page."

Win Saturday, after all, and only the hardest of die-hard fans will stew about losing rivalry games.

"We're in postseason play," Swinney said. "Everybody else is at home."