ATLANTA — Now that one streak is over, Georgia Tech wants to keep another going.
The Yellow Jackets (4-3, 3-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) travel to Virginia on Saturday for a crucial game in their bid to extend a stretch of 16 consecutive bowl appearances — tied for fourth among the longest active streaks in the nation.
Georgia Tech snapped a run of three straight losses last week with a 56-0 rout of Syracuse, but there's still work to do. While a .500 record is normally good enough to become bowl eligible, the Yellow Jackets will likely need seven victories to qualify since they've got two non-FBS schools on their schedule, Elon and Alabama A&M.
Even if they win both those games, as expected, only one would count toward bowl eligibility.
"I'm sure the guys aren't dumb," coach Paul Johnson said Tuesday. "We talked about that after the BYU game (the third straight loss), how we had gotten ourselves in a hole and didn't have a lot of margin for error. It was time to bow our backs and fight back."
The Yellow Jackets did just that against Syracuse, putting up their largest margin of victory ever in an ACC game, and they're facing another struggling team in the Cavaliers (2-5, 0-3), who have dropped four in a row.
Johnson isn't giving up on the conference race, thought it seems highly unlikely his team will be able to catch either Virginia Tech or Miami, both unbeaten in conference play. A year ago, Georgia Tech finished the regular season with a .500 record but claimed a spot in the ACC championship game when the Hurricanes imposed a post-season ban for allegations of major violations — a case, in an interesting twist, that was finally settled Tuesday when the NCAA took away nine scholarships from the school.
"There's a big difference between being 5-3 and 4-4," Johnson said. "And nobody knows what's going to happen. We didn't know we were going to be in the conference championship game a year ago, but lo and behold we were. We've just got to keep plugging and let that other stuff take care of itself."
If Georgia Tech loses at Virginia, its hopes of a 17th straight bowl will definitely be in jeopardy. The Yellow Jackets still have games at No. 9 Clemson and the traditional season finale against Georgia.
Clemson is coming off a blowout loss to Florida State, but the Tigers figure to be a huge favorite over Georgia Tech playing at home. Georgia is struggling through a disappointing season, plagued by injuries and having plummeted out of the Top 25 with back-to-back defeats, but the Bulldogs have lost to their state rival only once in the last 12 seasons.
"We're approaching every game like it's a playoff game," running back Zach Laskey said. "It's do or die for us."
Georgia Tech, for some reason, always seems to struggle in Charlottesville.
Virginia has won nine of the last 10 meetings at Scott Stadium, the only exception being Georgia Tech's 34-9 rout in 2009. The Yellow Jackets' last seven road losses in the series have been by an average margin of six points, including an excruciating 24-21 setback two years ago when they were off to a 6-0 start and ranked No. 12 in the nation.
"We were feeling really, really good about ourselves," Johnson remembered, "and they hit us right in the mouth right from the start."
That game, in a sense, signaled a change in direction for Johnson's program. He had a record of 32-14 at the Atlanta school before that day; the Jackets are 13-15 since then, leading to plenty of grumbling among the fan base.
Now, it's time for another trip to Virginia.
"The only thing I know is we've been there twice since I got here, and we won the first time 34-9," Johnson said. "We don't worry about some mystique. We just worry about our game. If we limit the penalties and limit the turnovers and play hard, like we did this past Saturday, we'll be OK no matter where we play. If we don't do those things, it doesn't matter where we play, either. We're not going to be very successful."