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Jackets ready for key ACC showdown
Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt (9) tries to get past Florida State defender Dekoda Watson, right, during the first quarter last Saturday. - photo by John Bazemore

Georgia Tech at North Carolina

When: Noon Saturday

Where: Chapel Hill, N.C.


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina and Georgia Tech are stuck in the muddled mess of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division standings. Both the 19th-ranked Tar Heels and No. 22 Yellow Jackets know the only way to come out on top is to keep winning.

When they meet today, the teams find themselves among five two-loss teams in the race to reach the league championship game. There are only a handful of chances left to push forward or make up for any earlier-season slipups, which could have the division come down to a bunch of tiebreakers unless a team emerges from the pack.

"I think everybody is kind of in a situation where you control your own destiny," North Carolina coach Butch Davis. "If you play well, good things have a chance to happen, and if you don’t, they won’t."

The Tar Heels (6-2, 2-2 ACC) entered their bye week enjoying their most successful season since 1997 and their first bowl eligibility in four years. Yet they say none of that matters compared to what awaits coming out of the break, from ensuring their first winning season since 2001 to making good on the preseason expectations that they would contend for the division title.

Their two losses have come against Virginia and Virginia Tech, so they would need those teams to lose even if North Carolina managed to win out thanks to head-to-head tiebreakers. That could be a tough task considering the Tar Heels’ final month includes a trip to No. 23 Maryland, a home game against North Carolina State and the finale at improving Duke.

A loss to the Yellow Jackets (7-2, 4-2) would add another team to North Carolina’s standings loss-watch list.

"We’d all be lying if we told you we didn’t know who needed to lose," quarterback Cameron Sexton said.

"We all know that. I think generally, we do a good job of not paying attention to it, because if we don’t win, it doesn’t matter."

The Yellow Jackets are in similar position; both of their losses came against the Cavaliers and Hokies. They close their ACC schedule next week at home against Miami.

"We can’t worry about what other teams are doing to help us or hurt us," Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson said. "Everything’s on our shoulders."

Both teams will have their biggest challenge stopping the other team’s offense: North Carolina with its big-play passing game led by receiver Hakeem Nicks, Georgia Tech with its triple-option attack.

The Tar Heels have won four of five games since losing starter T.J. Yates to injury at quarterback thanks to Sexton’s strong play. Now it’s Nicks’ turn to fill in for a missing star, replacing do-everything receiver and returner Brandon Tate (knee injury). He came through with three touchdown catches and a rushing score in a rout against Boston College two weeks ago, while converted safety Shaun Draughn has run for an average of 100 yards in the last four games.

In addition, North Carolina’s defense is tied for the national lead with 17 interceptions.

"When you look at a complete team — offense, defense and special teams — North Carolina might be the best in the league," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said.

Johnson’s offense has caused plenty of headaches in the ACC, forcing defenses to play patiently and disciplined enough to cover every assignment on every play. Jonathan Dwyer is second in the league at just less than 100 yards rushing per game, part of a ground attack that leads the ACC at 242 yards per game — 45 more than second-place Florida State.

The Tar Heels got a few extra days to prepare and train their scout team to run the offense during the bye week, but Davis said the simulation won’t be anything like the way the Yellow Jackets run it.

"You’ve got to live in your own little world," Davis said. "You can’t worry about the other 10 guys. You’ve got to trust the other guys are going to do the right thing. ... We could practice this for three weeks and never come close to duplicating the speed that it happens. We may line up and it may visually look like it, but it’s never going to be like it."

The health of quarterback Josh Nesbitt could go a long way in determining how well the Yellow Jackets can move the football. He went down with an ankle injury in the third quarter of last weekend’s win against Florida State, though he was listed atop the depth chart Thursday and is expected to play.

"I’m fine," Nesbitt said. "We’ll be ready no matter what."

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