DURHAM, N.C. — Georgia Tech’s players slapped a few high-fives with the fans who stuck around an emptying stadium. In one end zone, a banner was unfurled to read: "Tampa Bound."
After clinching the ACC Coastal Division, they allowed themselves to savor the moment for, well, a moment.
But these No. 7 Yellow Jackets hope some bigger things await — like their first outright ACC championship since 1990.
"Those guys have worked really hard, and a lot of people have doubted them along the way — especially early — and they’ve just been resilient and they kept playing," Tech coach Paul Johnson said. "Lord knows we can play a lot better, and we need to, but I’ll give them credit: They find a way to win."
That really wasn’t all that difficult to do against a Duke team that, while improved, still has a long way to go.
The Yellow Jackets scored on five of six possessions to overcome an early 10-point deficit and rout the Blue Devils 49-10. That gave Georgia Tech (10-1, 7-1), winner of eight straight, its best record through 11 games since that ‘90 team started 10-0-1 and claimed the national championship in the coaches’ poll.
After a week off, Tech faces rival Georgia before heading to Tampa, Fla., for the Atlantic Coast Conference’s title game against either No. 18 Clemson or Boston College. The Tigers will clinch the Atlantic Division with a win against Virginia or a BC loss to North Carolina or Maryland.
"Now we know the biggest game of the year is next," Johnson said.
Followed by a bigger one, and after that, perhaps the program’s biggest in decades. The Yellow Jackets haven’t played in one of the four BCS-caliber bowls since the 1966 team reached the Orange Bowl, the January prize that awaits the ACC title-game winner.
They made it this far three years ago but lost to Wake Forest in the league championship, finished 7-6 in Chan Gailey’s final season and hired Johnson. He went 9-4 in his first year and shared the Coastal title with Virginia Tech but lost out on a tiebreaker.
"After what happened last year, we put that in our mind that we weren’t going to settle for anything," reigning ACC player of the year Jonathan Dwyer said. "What we did last year was special, somewhat, but we knew we could do better. ... All this work is going to pay off for us in the long run."
It already is. In Year 2 of Johnson’s option-oriented system, the Yellow Jackets rank No. 2 nationally in yards rushing and 11th in total offense, averaging 314 yards on the ground and nearly 450 overall.
The college football world may not have expected this level of success, but Johnson hasn’t been surprised.
"I couldn’t in good conscience go into a game where I don’t think I have a chance to win every game," Johnson said. "You go in thinking that you’re going to win every game, and the thing that these guys have done is, they bought in and they worked hard. Sometimes, I get after them — I got in a couple of their faces (Saturday), even with the score the way it was, and they have learned to accept that and go on. Other kids might not, but my hat’s off to them. They worked hard and they earned it."