BLACKSBURG, Va. — For the five years the Atlantic Coast Conference has held a championship game, the winner of the annual matchup of Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech has always had a spot.
The 20th-ranked Hokies are rolling into tonight's game against the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech is in desperation mode as it heads to Lane Stadium, knowing one more loss would kill its hope of repeating as ACC champions.
Virginia Tech (6-2, 4-0) has won six in a row since a poor start to the season and is the only team still unbeaten in league play. The game marks that start of the three-game stretch that may determine the Coastal Division champ, with Miami and North Carolina to follow.
It's a game quarterback Tyrod Taylor has been eager to see arrive ever since the Hokies lost 28-23 last year in a game that left coach Frank Beamer complaining about cut blocking.
"I feel like it's a rivalry between us and them," Taylor said of the series that always seems to produce close games. "Thursday night, there's no better time to play them."
The teams have met twice before on Thursday nights, with the Hokies winning both times. Virginia Tech is 16-5 on ESPN Thursday night games; the Yellow Jackets are 11-12.
Georgia Tech (5-3, 3-2) is coming off a 27-13 loss at Clemson, and they Yellow Jackets have not lost consecutive games in three years with Paul Johnson as their coach.
To have any chance of defending their ACC title, they can't afford to lose again
"We are playing the team that is playing the best in the league right now, so it is a chance to go and measure yourself and see where you stack up," Johnson said.
And while things haven't gone the way Johnson and the Yellow Jackets would have liked so far this season, they still present a stiff challenge on both sides of the ball. On offense, Joshua Nesbitt directs the triple-option. On defense, they play a 3-4 alignment that has the potential to be tricky.
Nesbitt burned the Hokies last year, even while completing just one pass all game. He ran for 122 yards, and his 39-yard scoring run with 3 minutes left sealed the outcome.
Nesbitt will arrive at Lane Stadium needing 42 yards to pass Clemson's Woodrow Dantzler as the top running quarterback in conference history, but the Hokies are eager to see him.
"He's a tough runner," safety Davon Morgan said. "He runs behind his pads and everything, but the way I see it is he's a quarterback. I'm not up here trying to talk a little trash or nothing like that, but my job is to hit him, and that's what I'm going to do."
Nesbitt isn't the only Georgia Tech ball carrier with impressive credentials. He's second on the team in rushing (81.4 yards per game) behind Anthony Allen (86.5), with the two of them leading the way for the nation's No. 1 rushing attack (317 ypg).
This will be the Hokies third look at Johnson's offense, and it hardly gets easier.
"You see it week after week because people have actually seen this offense on film plenty of times," defensive tackle John Graves said. "People still have a hard time with it."
And the best way to minimize it, Beamer said, is to keep it off the field.
"Against this team, it's keep the ball and score," he said.
It helps that the Hokies have had little trouble on that front. They have scored 45 points or more in four straight games and have Taylor playing better than ever.
He's thrown 10 touchdown passes since his last interception and is fourth nationally in pass efficiency.
Just like Nesbitt for the Hokies, Taylor gives Johnson cause for concern. He's averaging almost 66 yards rushing per game, and already has two runs of more than 70 yards this season.
"We haven't tackled him in two years," Johnson said.
If that holds true again, the Yellow Jackets may be in for a long night.