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Making one count
Clemson Georgia Tech  Heal
Georgia Tech linebacker Chaz Cheeks (39) celebrates with fans after Tech defeated Clemson 31-17 Saturday, Oct. 29, in Atlanta. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — They still wear their rings, still consider themselves champions.

The record book tells a different story.

Officially, no team is listed in the spot for Atlantic Coast Conference champion of 2009, a title Georgia Tech won on the field but had stripped away this past summer when the NCAA found the school had used an ineligible player and, more troubling, tried to obstruct the investigation.

For the Yellow Jackets, the championship that wasn't has loomed over the program all season. No one talks about it much, but it's there, pushing this group to win a replacement crown for the one that got away.

"It would definitely feel good," said Roddy Jones, a running back and fifth-year senior. "I'd be lying if I told you it wouldn't feel good to get one after having it taken away."

No. 22 Georgia Tech (7-2, 4-2 ACC) is getting closer, putting itself within two wins of likely getting back to the Dec. 3 championship game in Charlotte, N.C.

The biggest test comes Thursday night, when the Yellow Jackets host No. 12 Virginia Tech (8-1, 4-1) in what has all the makings of a Coastal Division play-in game. The winner will certainly have the inside track to reach Charlotte, assuming Virginia drops one of its final four ACC games (a strong possibility with a road trip to Florida State and season finale against Virginia Tech still looming).

So, if Georgia Tech can beat the Hokies, it probably would need to merely take care of its ACC finale against last-place Duke to lock up a spot.

The Yellow Jackets started fast, winning the first six games for their best start since 1966. But they struggled to beat Maryland, and the troubling signs that emerged in that contest led to back-to-back losses at Virginia and Maryland.

Georgia Tech's triple-option began to struggle as defenses focused their attention on stopping quarterback Tevin Washington from getting outside or making pitches to explosive A-backs such as Jones, Orwin Smith and Embry Peeples. With their run-oriented offense clogged up in the middle of the field, the Yellow Jackets looked especially inept in a 24-7 loss to Miami.

But, just when the season seemed on the verge of falling apart, Georgia Tech turned things around with a stunning 31-17 upset of then-No. 6 Clemson last Saturday.

Two years ago, Georgia Tech won its division, defeated Clemson in a wild ACC title game and earned its first major postseason bid since the 1960s (the Yellow Jackets lost to Iowa in the Orange Bowl). For coach Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets, it was validation that an offense with its origins in the wishbone and veer attacks of the 1970s could succeed on a major college level.

The questions cropped up again when Georgia Tech slipped to 6-7 last year, and all the good feelings from the championship season were tempered further when the NCAA punished the program because star receiver Demaryius Thomas took $312 worth of clothing from a former Yellow Jackets player who was working as a sports agent.

While a relatively minor violation, the NCAA really came down hard on the school after learning athletic director Dan Radakovich tipped off his football coach about the impending interviews of Thomas and another player, allowing them time to prepare their answers.

The result was a hefty list of sanctions that included stripping away the ACC championship, the school's first outright title since 1990.

While all the players from that team still have their rings — and many still wear them proudly — the NCAA sanctions left a hollow feeling about that special year, as if they were being punished for the sins of others.

"I still have my ring," Washington said. "But on paper, it says we're not (champions). You've got to live with that reality, too."

Before the season, the coaches and support staff began plotting ways to turn the disappointment over losing a title into a driving force that would bring home another. Washington remembers the strength coaches telling him to "go back and prove people wrong. Go back and get another one."

Those sort of speeches aren't used anymore, but they still linger in everyone's minds.

"Actions speak louder than any words, any appeals," receiver Tyler Melton said. "Our ultimate goal is to get back there and win it."

Even if they don't, Jones will leave school feeling as though he was part of a championship team — regardless of what the NCAA says.

"They can't take away the ring," he said. "No matter what happened off the field, that had no effect on what was happening on the field. Rules are rules, I guess. If you break the rules, I guess there's punishment. But we played the game on the field — and we won."