Now ranked, Tech becomes the hunted

This past weekend’s flurry of upsets that rendered moot the top-25 rankings also cleared room for Georgia Tech and its 5-0 record.

With 11 of the teams in the Associated Press top 25 losing – three to teams ranked ahead of them – four teams dropped out of the rankings. One team ahead of the Yellow Jackets in last week’s “others receiving votes” queue (South Carolina) also lost. That and Tech’s eye-catching performance against Miami on a nationally-televised, prime-time platform (318 rushing yards, no turnovers, three points allowed in the final three quarters) lifted the Jackets into the top 25 of the AP and USA Today coaches polls for the first time since the 13th week of the 2011 season, prior to the Tech-Georgia game.

And with that promotion, the situation changed for the Jackets. In the past two games, Tech sought to even scores with Virginia Tech and Miami, as no one on the roster had beaten either team. The Jackets now find the targets on their backs. With a national ranking and an undefeated record, Tech has something to protect.

The happy truism that no one is safe in college football, proven repeatedly Saturday, including at Bobby Dodd Stadium, now applies in reverse for the Jackets. If Alabama and Oregon can be taken down, then surely so can Tech.

Duke opened as a five-point underdog to the Jackets. The Blue Devils have lost 10 in a row to Tech and 18 of the past 19 meetings. But Duke will be coming off its open date, beat two ranked teams last season and nearly upset Texas A&M and quarterback Johnny Manziel in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

“We’ll have to get better this week, because the crowd coming in doesn’t beat themselves,” coach Paul Johnson said following Saturday’s game, referring to Duke. “They’re well-coached and they play hard. They’ve got guys that are older and redshirted and have played. It’ll be a good game again.”

Next Saturday, Tech will go to Chapel Hill, N.C., to play North Carolina, which has lost five in a row to the Jackets and eight of the past nine. The Tar Heels don’t exactly have a lot going for them this season. North Carolina is ranked No. 103 nationally in defensive yards per play and No. 124 in scoring defense. But, as any hand-wringing Tech fan can conclude, that just makes the Jackets all the more prone to be upset.

The onus will be on Tech players and coaches to maintain their focus on improving and practicing with effort. Motivation has been easy to this point. Tech struggled to play complete games in its first four games and had scores to settle in the past two games. Hunger came easily. The motivation to prepare well for Duke will come from elsewhere, if wanting to stay undefeated, move up in the polls, earn another ACC Coastal Division win and gain tighter control of the division are not quite enough to balance the heaps of praise players are undoubtedly receiving.

The Jackets have not always handled success well. The loss of focus demonstrated in the second half of the Georgia Southern game, when the Jackets gave up a 25-point halftime lead only to take the lead back on their final possession, is only the most recent example.

After Saturday’s game, though, linebacker Quayshawn Nealy suggested that perhaps a mature perspective was already in place.

With the Miami win, Nealy said, “Duke’s going to be even bigger next week.”

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