MIAMI — Entering Saturday, No. 20 Georgia Tech will be sitting atop the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division.
By nightfall, the Yellow Jackets may find themselves in fourth place.
That's how closely knit things are right now in the division. All six teams come into this weekend with either one or two losses in conference play.
And that means everyone pretty much still has a shot at the ACC title, including Miami. The Hurricanes have not won back-to-back games in nearly a year, but could jump right back into the thick of the division hunt if they can beat the Yellow Jackets.
Miami has won the last two meetings between the schools by a combined 68-27.
When he was at Navy, Paul Johnson left a lasting impression on Miami coach Al Golden.
They crossed paths twice when Golden was coaching Temple, and both times Johnson's triple-option offense overpowered the Owls. Here's the numbers: 894 yards of total offense, 781 of them coming on the ground, and the Midshipmen won by a combined score of 72-25.
"He's the best," Golden said.
Golden has given that answer at least seven times in interview sessions this week when asked about Johnson and the offense he's known for running. He'd rather offer it again on Saturday, when the Hurricanes (3-3, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) play host to Johnson and the 20th-ranked Yellow Jackets (6-1, 3-1) in a game that looms as critical for both teams.
With a win, Georgia Tech would be assured of staying atop the Coastal Division and would all but eliminate Miami from any title contention. Should the Hurricanes prevail over the Yellow Jackets for the third straight year, an already tight race — all six teams in the division enter the weekend with either one or two conference losses — could easily become further logjammed.
"Every time you play a division game, it's a huge game," Georgia Tech running back Roddy Jones said.
Georgia Tech fell from the unbeaten ranks last week, quickly falling into a two-touchdown hole and eventually losing 24-21 at Virginia. Under Johnson, the bounce-back from a first ACC loss hasn't been a problem. Since Johnson came to Atlanta, the Yellow Jackets are 3-0 after their first ACC defeat each year, winning those games by an average of 16 points.
Technically, the loss to once-beaten-in-ACC-play Virginia means Georgia Tech no longer controls its destiny in the league race. Johnson isn't worried.
"We're disappointed that we lost, but the sky isn't falling," Johnson said. "The team is 6-1. Before you bury us let us play two more games. It seems like everyone wants to end the season and bury the team. Maybe they're right, but let's at least go play and see what happens."
Miami has felt like it's been getting buried since August, when news broke of an investigation into claims a former booster had been tainting dozens of players and recruits since 2002.
In all, eight players were suspended for their role in that mess. All are back now, with defensive end Olivier Vernon's six-game banishment now completed. Miami may need him this week more than ever, not just because Georgia Tech is averaging nearly 348 yards of rushing alone per game, but because defensive tackle Micanor Regis will not play Saturday because he punched a North Carolina player in the Hurricanes' win over the Tar Heels last weekend.
That being said, Miami would have justification to carry some confidence into Saturday. Not only are the Hurricanes coming off their first ACC win under Golden, but they've beaten Georgia Tech by a combined 68-27 in the last two meetings between the programs.
"We can be beaten any given Saturday," linebacker Sean Spence said. "So we've got to stay focused. We know what to expect from Georgia Tech. They have some great athletes over there. You know you're going to be cut (blocked). You know what they're going to do on certain down-and-distance. But you still have to play their assignment, because at the same time you still don't know who has the ball. Everybody's got to do their job."
That's the beauty or the beast of the triple-option. There's misdirection on nearly every play, and if teams overplay the run, Georgia Tech can hit them harder through the air. Quarterback Tevin Washington has only 39 completions all season — six different quarterbacks in major college football came into the week with more than that in single games this year alone — but when he connects, the Yellow Jackets are getting an average of 27.6 yards per play.
"You can just see by the yards per catch that they get explosive plays," Golden said. "You've got to try to limit the explosive plays."
Miami quarterback Jacory Harris has been explosive at times as well this year.
The senior has 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions this season through his first five games. A year ago, he finished with 14 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, and Miami believes it has a great chance if turnovers are not an issue this week.
"It's quite a challenge to go to Miami and play," Johnson said. "I think that they're kind of starting to hit their stride now the last few games and playing extremely well. Jacory Harris is playing the best that I've seen him play."