Jacket defenders Antonio Simmons (93), Kyle Cerge-Henderson (54) and Anree Saint-Amour (94) celebrate after a big play in the win over the Panthers. Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com
Photo: Hyosub Shin/AJC
Photo: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Can Georgia Tech win the Coastal Division?

Georgia Tech’s schedule will be no friend.

In their quest for the ACC Coastal Division title and a spot in the conference title game, the Yellow Jackets have six tough matchups, starting with a game at Miami on Oct. 14. Tech probably needs to win at least four and possibly five to make it to Charlotte, N.C. The remaining league games – at No. 13 Miami, Wake Forest, at No. 2 Clemson, at Virginia, No. 16 Virginia Tech, at Duke.

Along with the annual game vs. No. 4 Georgia, it’s the most difficult remaining schedule in FBS, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

At least two keen ACC observers believe the Jackets can reach Charlotte.

“I think they have a really good chance,” said former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, the co-host of “ACC Blitz” on Raycom Sports. He calls Miami the favorite, with Virginia Tech slightly ahead of the Jackets.

Dave Archer, the game analyst for Raycom/ACC Network broadcasts, calls Miami a “slight favorite,” but rated the Hokies and Jackets right behind them, followed by Duke.

“I think they have a chance,” Archer said of the Jackets.

Now for a few kind words about the Tech defense

A noted Las Vegas oddsmaker sets Tech’s chances well back of Miami’s. At the AJC’s request, Jay Kornegay, head oddsmaker at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, gave Miami 2-5 odds to win the Coastal, followed by Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech at 4-1 and Duke and Virginia at 20-1.

Both Archer, who called Tech’s 35-17 win over Pittsburgh, and Bowden, like Tech’s chances for two reasons in particular – quarterback TaQuon Marshall and the improvement of the Jackets defense. Bowden called Marshall a difference maker and said that he is more optimistic about the Jackets’ chances to win the Coastal than he was at the start of the season because of his playmaking ability.

“I’m a Paul Johnson Kool-Aid drinker, especially when he has the right pieces of the puzzle,” Bowden said. “I like that quarterback. If (Johnson) has an average guy in there, I wouldn’t say (Tech has a good chance), but in that offense, he’s a difference maker.”

Archer said that Marshall has distinguished himself from his predecessor in one aspect critical to Johnson’s offense.

As Archer saw it, where Justin Thomas was capable of big plays, he was also prone to taking big losses while trying to extend a play. Marshall has demonstrated the sense to take a small gain on a third-and-4 in order to have a chance to go for it on fourth-and-1.

“I think Justin was a great player for Paul, but this kid (Marshall) kind of thinks along the same lines as Paul does with what they’re doing from run-game standpoint with some of the down-and-distance situations,” Archer said. “I think he understands. He has a really good feel for down-and-distance.”

Analysis: Playmakers on display in Georgia Tech’s win over UNC

Tech ranks fifth nationally in third-down conversion rate at 53.3 percent. Against North Carolina, the Jackets executed drives of 17 and 18 plays in which they were 5-for-8 on third downs, with all the makes achieved on Marshall runs or passes.

While Tech hasn’t proven itself against a top offense in holding Pittsburgh and North Carolina to a combined 24 points in the past two weeks, Bowden believes in the improvement that defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s unit has made. He pointed out how Tech handled its business against the Panthers and Tar Heels. Pitt’s point total (17) and yards-per-play average against Tech (4.27) were both the second lowest of the season. North Carolina’s point total (seven) and its yards-per-play (4.26) were both its lowest.

“They’re not top of the conference, but they’re playing really well,” Bowden said.

Archer sees improvement in the Jackets’ limiting big plays. Tech is tied for ninth in FBS in plays of 20 yards or more allowed from scrimmage with 11. It is evidence of the team’s improvement in tackling.

“That seems like what’s plagued Georgia Tech, is they play really good defense for 50 minutes, but there’s 10 minutes where they lose their minds and don’t tackle anybody,” Archer said.

Winning the Coastal will likely require at least a 6-2 league record and possibly 7-1. Bowden already has counted the Clemson game as a loss for Tech, given how defensive coordinator Brent Venables has muted the Jackets (166 rushing yards in the past two games). Tech’s next opponent, Miami, may not be a must win, but it would go a long way toward creating a path to Charlotte. ESPN’s Football Power Index metrics gave Tech a 29 percent chance of defeating the Hurricanes.

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Archer especially likes Miami’s front seven on defense but said that freshman quarterback Malik Rosier can be hot and cold. Bowden sees the challenge in the form of Hurricanes running back Mark Walton and wide receiver Ahmmon Richards.

“Tackling skilled athletes in space – it’s always been the problem at Georgia Tech,” he said.

Tech is playing for its first ACC title-game appearance since 2014, fifth overall and fourth with Johnson. If the Jackets reach Charlotte, it will have been a trip well-earned.

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