ATLANTA — Paul Johnson has always been a bit defiant. Tell him that his option offense can't work at a major college, and he'll fire right back with all the reasons it can.
So, it's not surprising that the coach is holding out hope of getting back to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
The Yellow Jackets (5-3, 3-2 ACC) need a major upset Thursday night at No. 20 Virginia Tech — and even that may not be enough to give them a shot at defending their conference title in Charlotte.
"Yeah, we're still talking about it," Johnson said Monday. "We still haven't been mathematically eliminated. It's not a major focus. Our focus is trying to play better this week. But we know if we don't win this week, there won't be much to talk about.
"Who knows? If we go up there and win this week, I've seen sicker children get well."
Georgia Tech hasn't been nearly the team it was a year ago, when the Yellow Jackets claimed their first outright ACC championship since 1990. The offensive and defensive lines have been a major concern, the kicking game has been poor and the loss to receiver Demaryius Bilbo to the NFL has hurt more than expected.
Now it's time to face the ACC's hottest team.
Virginia Tech (6-2, 4-0) has won six straight since an improbable loss to lower-division James Madison. The Hokies are a two-touchdown favorite to extend that streak in a prime-time matchup with the Yellow Jackets.
"We still have a chance to accomplish the goals we had at the beginning of the year," Johnson said. "We're playing a team that's playing better than anyone in the league right now. It's a chance to make a name for yourself, to see where you stack up."
The Yellow Jackets must win their last three conference games and hope Virginia Tech loses to someone else in the final month of the regular season.
After Thursday, the schedule definitely tips in Georgia Tech's favor. The Yellow Jackets close with home games against Miami and Duke, while the Hokies go on the road to face the Hurricanes and North Carolina before closing the regular season at home against rival Virginia.
But the most unlikely part of Georgia Tech's somehow-pull-out-another-division-title scenario is actually taking the first step.
Virginia Tech has won by an average of 24 points during its winning streak, while the Yellow Jackets are coming off a 27-13 loss at Clemson.
Early on, Johnson talked bravely of making do without four junior stars who left early for the NFL, but it's clear the team has struggled to cope with the loss of Bilbo, running back Jonathan Dwyer, defensive end Derrick Morgan and safety Morgan Burnett.
"Any time you lose good players, it hurts," the coach said. "That's the nature of the beast. I thought we would play better in some other spots than we have."
Johnson was reticent to call out any players or positions other than the kicking game, which he described as "god awful." Not much doubt about that. The Yellow Jackets have used two punters and rank 10th in the ACC in net average (31.6 yards). They aren't much better when the other team punts, averaging just 6.3 yards per return to also place 10th in the conference.
Georgia Tech doesn't throw it very often, but Bilbo provided a timely weapon in the passing game last season. Many times, quarterback Joshua Nesbitt just heaved the ball up in the air and counted on his favorite receiver to come down with it.
Stephen Hill, who is 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, appears to have the physical skills to pull off at least a reasonable impression of Bilbo. But the sophomore has only 12 catches for 165 yards, and no one else has more than seven receptions.
"Certainly when you lose the first receiver taken in the draft, it's hard to replace him," Johnson said. "I've heard people say, 'You'll never get another one like that.' Dude, there's a bunch of teams who've never had one like that."
The problems up front — on both sides of the line — might be the biggest problem. Nesbitt, who was touted by the school as a potential Heisman candidate, doesn't have as much time to make the crucial decisions that make the option go, and have probably trickled down to cause plenty of sloppy play (24 fumbles in all, an ACC-worst 10 that have been recovered by other team). Frankly put, the Yellow Jackets have been manhandled by the better defenses they've faced.
Morgan covered up some of the problems on the other side of the defensive line. But without him getting pressure on the quarterback or at least drawing plenty of double teams, the Yellow Jackets haven't been nearly as effective.
Johnson can only hope the team starts to click in this final month.
"In this profession, people jump on and off the bandwagon really fast," he said. "If we can get a couple of wins, they'll be right back on."