ATLANTA — A year ago, Georgia Tech was closing in on its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in nearly two decades.
This time, the stakes are much lower.
The Yellow Jackets (5-5, 3-4 ACC) need to win at least one of their last two games just to be considered for a 14th straight bowl appearance. Any hopes of defending that league championship or playing in another major bowl are long gone as they prepare to face Duke today.
"Last year, it seemed whenever something would go wrong, we'd get that big play or that big break or everyone would come together and really make it work," center Sean Bedford said. "This year, it just feels like we've been one block off, one assignment off. Where the ball would have bounced one way last year, it's bounced the other way this year."
Georgia Tech's last hope of returning to the ACC title game ended two weeks ago in a loss at Virginia Tech, a defeat that was doubly tough because star quarterback Joshua Nesbitt went down with a broken arm. Deprived of its offensive catalyst and any championships hopes, the Yellow Jackets were blown out last week at home, falling to Miami 35-10 with sophomore Tevin Washington at quarterback.
The level of competition goes down considerably in the home finale, but Duke (3-7, 1-5) has won two of its last three and lost a close one to Boston College.
Considering the way things have gone for Georgia Tech, there's no such thing as a gimme.
"Duke is probably playing its best football," coach Paul Johnson said. "It won't be easy. It never is. We've got to try to play a solid game. It's been a while since we played a really solid game."
The players insist that being bowl eligible still provides plenty of motivation, even though they'll likely be shuttled off to some minor game during the holidays. Georgia Tech hasn't been left out of the postseason since 1996.
"It means everything to us," senior defensive back Dominique Reese said. "You always want to make history, but you don't want to make history in the wrong way. We definitely don't want be known as the worst team to come through here in the last 15 years, so we've got to get this win."
The Blue Devils don't have a lot to play for, but they have been playing better in recent weeks. They posted high-scoring wins over Navy and Virginia before stumbling against Boston College 21-16 when their final drive stalled at the 4-yard line. Sean Renfree completed 25 of 49 for 285 yards in the loss.
More important, Renfree has not been picked off in the last three games, after throwing 15 interceptions over the first seven contests.
"If I'm not 100 percent comfortable with every throw I'm making, I'm just not going to make it. If I can't see very well, even if the guy might be wide open but I can't see him very clearly, I'm just not going to throw it. If I feel like I'm getting pressured and I'm not going to get a ball off very well and I might get hit or something and the ball might flutter, I'm just going to take the sack," Renfree said. "It's just not worth it to turn the ball over."
Renfree said it's important to play well in the last two games against Georgia Tech and North Carolina, even though the loss to Boston College knocked the Blue Devils out of bowl consideration.
"These next two games are going to carry us into the offseason and help determine what type of team we're going to be next year," he said. "They're ACC games, too. We'd like to finish up as strong as we can."
Ditto for Georgia Tech, which must count on an untested backup to run its option offense for at least two more games. Nesbitt had surgery on his broken arm and hopes to return for a farewell game, but that has no chance of happening unless the Yellow Jackets qualify for a bowl.
"I'm just trying to get the guys up, get everybody on a positive note," said Washington, who ran for 122 yards in his first start. "Hopefully we'll get some breaks to go our way."