ATLANTA — Coach Paul Johnson knows that Georgia Tech is at a strange crossroads to a bizarre season.
If the Yellow Jackets upset No. 13 Florida State in the ACC championship game, they will earn a spot in the Orange Bowl.
If they lose, it might take an NCAA waiver for a lower-tier bowl even to offer an invitation.
But Johnson said he isn’t concerned about Georgia Tech’s postseason status with a conference title at stake Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C.
After the Jackets’ four-game winning streak ended last week with an embarrassing loss at No. 3 Georgia, Johnson wants his players concentrating on what they can control.
“It’s like I said when I talked to the team, ‘There’s a lot of teams in the country that would love to change places with you and have a chance to go play in the conference championship game,’” Johnson said Tuesday. “Is it a challenge? Sure, we’re playing a really good team, but it’s also an opportunity.”
At 6-6, Georgia Tech faces an uncomfortable quandary. A win over Florida State solves everything, but a loss to the Seminoles leaves the Jackets relying on bowl scenario circumstances to fall in their favor.
Just to be safe, Georgia Tech and the Atlantic Coast Conference office earlier this week filed a preliminary waiver with the NCAA to ensure that a seventh loss would not discredit a sub.-500 team and make it ineligible for a bowl.
Johnson, though, wants his team focused on what matters now.
After last week’s 42-10 drubbing at Georgia, Johnson hopes that the Jackets respond appropriately against a Florida State team that’s lost just twice — in a one-point upset Oct. 6 at North Carolina State and 37-26 last week at home to then-No. 6 Florida.
The Seminoles, led by the nation’s fourth-most efficient passer in quarterback EJ Manuel and a stingy defense that ranks No. 2 overall, seem like a mismatch for the Jackets, but Johnson refuses to count his players out.
“They’ve been fairly resilient for a young football team,” Johnson said. “They’ve bounced back a couple of different times when it could’ve gone south, but they put forth the energy and fought to come back. So I think they realize they’ve got a good opportunity in front of them and hopefully we’ll prepare that way and go up there and give it our best shot. It’s why you play the game.”
When the Jackets were 2-4 overall after losing at Clemson eight weeks ago, it seemed that hope had all but evaporated.
But Johnson started using Vad Lee to create a vibrant quarterback rotation with fifth-year senior Tevin Washington, and the post-Clemson firing of coordinator Al Groh eventually gave Georgia Tech’s struggling defense a proverbial spark.
Even though an Oct. 27 home loss to Brigham Young — a second straight nonconference home loss that followed a bitter rout by Middle Tennessee State — dropped the Jackets to 3-5, they won four straight before losing last week at Georgia.
“It’s really a tale of two different seasons,” Johnson said. “The first part, you know, we lost a couple of close games, and I think it really affected us. We got in the conference schedule and played a little better. But it’s been a different type of year. We’ve actually played far better in the conference than we have outside. Normally, that’s usually not the case.”
Johnson also acknowledges the undercurrent of criticism that arose from Georgia loss. Since falling at home to the hated Bulldogs in November 2009, Georgia Tech is 21-20, and the Jackets certainly haven’t stirred enthusiasm by dropping seven straight bowl games.
“In the five years that some of (the seniors) have been here, they’ve either won or tied for the division championship three times,” Johnson said. “You wouldn’t know that. You’d think the sky was falling, but it’s like that’s probably better than (Georgia Tech had) done here in a while. So (the current seniors have) had some good wins and they’ve had some very tough losses, I think, along the way. It’s been up and down, which is kind of the way it is most of the time in a lot of places.”