Georgia Tech linebacker Chaz Cheeks celebrates with fans after Tech defeated Clemson, 31-17, late Saturday in Atlanta.
ATLANTA -- As the Georgia Tech students strolled out of Bobby Dodd Stadium early Sunday, they seemed more focused on upstaging their biggest rival than making a statement in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"To hell with Georgia!" they shouted in unison, finally heading home after a rousing upset of undefeated Clemson.
For the Yellow Jackets, however, the 31-17 victory was more significant to the ACC race. Suddenly, a team that appeared in big trouble finds itself just two wins away from having a shot to make up for the conference title that was snatched away by the NCAA this past summer.
If Georgia Tech (7-2, 4-2 ACC) can knock off Virginia Tech and Duke, it very likely will be playing in the ACC Championship game for the second time in three years.
"It makes the next game that much bigger," coach Paul Johnson said.
The Yellow Jackets, who climbed back into The Associated Press rankings at No. 22, are off next weekend, then host No. 12 Virginia Tech (8-1, 4-1) in a prime-time game Thursday night that will likely decide the Coastal Division title. Virginia is the only other team in the division with just two conference losses, and the Cavaliers still have road games at Maryland and Florida State, plus the season finale against their state rival. Hard to imagine a still-rebuilding program making it through all those games without at least one more loss.
Perfectly capable of reading a schedule like anyone else, Georgia Tech's players and coaches know they have a chance to make this a very special season after Saturday night's win.
"I am really proud of our guys," Johnson said. "I could not be prouder."
Thousands of gold-clad students stormed the field after the game, many of them apparently more pleased about matching Georgia's victory against Florida earlier Saturday than knocking off an unbeaten conference foe.
For Clemson, there was nothing but anguish. The Tigers (8-1, 5-1) came into the game ranked No. 6 -- and fifth in the BCS standings -- with a shot to make an improbable run at playing for the national championship. Now, having slipped to 11th in the new AP poll, they'll have to focus on winning the ACC title.
The Tigers can still clinch the Atlantic Division with a win in their next game, at home against second-place Wake Forest on Nov. 12. For coach Dabo Swinney, that would be proof that a once-powerhouse program is back on the right track.
"It'll be senior day and we have a chance to win this division for the second time in three years," he said. "That's what we've got to do, and they we'll have an opportunity to play for this conference (title). If you win this conference, you're going to a BCS (bowl). If we can do those things consistently, then one day we're going to have that special year where we put it all together."
Clemson could get another shot at Georgia Tech, just as it did in 2009 when the teams met during the regular season, then had a rematch in the ACC title game. The Yellow Jackets swept those two games by a total of eight points, earning their first outright ACC title since 1990 and first major bowl bid since the 1966 season.
Those results were wiped out as part of stiff penalties leveled by the NCAA for using an ineligible player that season and obstructing the investigation.
Georgia Tech still feels like the punishment didn't match the crime, and it would love nothing more than claim another ACC title so soon after having its last one wiped from the record books.
"With adversity, you've either got to stand up or lay down," defensive back Jemea Thomas of Fitzgerald said. "We've got the type of team where we're going to stand up and come back and just fight, no matter how hard the situation is."
After starting 6-0, the Yellow Jackets put themselves in a difficult situation by losing back-to-back games at Virginia and Miami. The triple-option offense that looked unstoppable early in the season began to struggle for yards, running up against defenses that shut down the pitches and sweeps that have the best chance of breaking big plays.
Quarterback Tevin Washington, in particular, fell on hard times. He's the one who makes the offense go, but he kept making the wrong reads, carried the ball far too much and was even yanked for a series against Miami, a futile bid by Johnson to shake things up with freshman Synjyn Days.
Washington never lost faith, and his performance against Clemson silenced the critics. The junior set a school rushing record for a quarterback, piling up 176 yards on 27 carries, including runs of 46 and 56 yards. But this was hardly a one-man show. David Sims had 15 carries for 68 yards, including a touchdown. Roddy Jones ran for 52 yards on just four carries. Orwin Smith scored a pair of touchdowns.
It was the guys up front who really made the offense go. Even without starting center Jay Finch, who was out with an injury, Georgia Tech's linemen did some ferocious blocking. They consistently overpowered Clemson at the point of attack, opening up huge holes for Washington and his backs.
"I can't give enough credit to the offensive line," the quarterback said. "They did a great job opening up a hole and I just ran through it."
After Clemson's Tajh Boyd had a pass picked off on first-and-goal at the Georgia Tech 9 -- one of four turnovers by the Tigers -- the Yellow Jackets sealed the victory by taking more than 9 minutes off the clock with 16 straight running plays.
It was the triple-option at its best. Georgia Tech finished with 383 yards on the ground.
"Anytime we can eat up clock, we're proud of it," Washington said. "If we can run the football, that's what we're going to do."
And, suddenly, the season is back on track for the Yellow Jackets.