Georgia Tech looking to spring another Top 25 upset

September 25, 2021 Atlanta - North Carolina's quarterback Sam Howell (7) is sacked by Georgia Tech's defensive lineman Kyle Kennard (31) during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, September 25, 2021. Georgia Tech won 45-22 over North Carolina. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

September 25, 2021 Atlanta - North Carolina's quarterback Sam Howell (7) is sacked by Georgia Tech's defensive lineman Kyle Kennard (31) during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, September 25, 2021. Georgia Tech won 45-22 over North Carolina. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Georgia Tech has not backed down from the challenge of facing a ranked opponent since Brent Key took over the program.

Since Key, in his first season as Tech’s full-time coach, was named interim coach in September 2022, the Yellow Jackets are 3-2 against opponents ranked inside The Associated Press Top 25. One of those wins came earlier this month when Tech went to Miami and beat the 17th-ranked Hurricanes.

Another came Nov. 19 when the Jackets went to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and knocked off the 13th-ranked Tar Heels. Tech now hosts North Carolina, ranked No. 17, at 8 p.m. Saturday (ACC Network) and again is a double-digit underdog – not that Key is dwelling upon that point this week or any week.

“That’s something that’s made up and talked about in the world. Those are external things that take place,” Key said. “Who’s the favorite, who’s not the favorite, who’s supposed to win, who’s not supposed to win, what games are you supposed to win to get to this number of wins or not supposed to win? Those are all external things that are fabricated without looking at tape, without looking at the other team, without looking at both teams, without looking at the matchups.

“We’ve got continue to block those things out and have the mindset that the only thing that matters is the message that takes place in the building, the knowledge of your opponent based on what you see on tape, how you view them, how they match up with you, how you match up with them, your plan, trusting in your plan, trusting in the players around you to execute the plan. That’s something we continue to work on every day from a mindset factor of having the right mindset every game.”

Key’s team returned to work this week looking to flush the failure of a 38-23 loss at home to Boston College, a defeat that dealt a major blow to the team’s bowl hopes, dashed already-slim ACC title chances and halted the momentum from that Oct. 7 victory in south Florida.

The Jackets have yet to put together back-to-back wins this season (they haven’t had a win streak since beating Pittsburgh and Duke, respectively, the first week of October last year), but they also haven’t suffered through a losing streak this fall. That’s a bit of a silver lining that Key’s players have found a way to bounce back time and again.

“It shows what the team is capable of doing consistently,” Key said. “Yeah, there’s that bounce back, and we’re so happy with a bounce-back, yet so deflated with, what would you call it, a bounce down, I guess? A deflation? It’s consistency that we’re continuing to work for. They show that they can do it, they show that they will do it, they show that they’re capable of doing it, and we’ve got to continue to do it consistently and get that done.

“I wish there was a better, concrete thing to say. There wouldn’t be a bounce-back if there wasn’t a down game, and if I knew what the answer was, there wouldn’t be a down game.”

No. 17 North Carolina lost in shocking fashion at Virginia on Saturday. The Tar Heels were 24-point favorites against a Cavaliers team that was 0-5 against the FBS this season, but UNC allowed 228 yards on the ground, went 4-of-13 on third downs and turned the ball over once in a 31-27 loss.

Carolina, however, comes to Atlanta as one of the better teams in the nation. It leads the ACC in passing offense, total offense, takeaways and third-down conversion rate.

Veteran quarterback Drake Maye, of course, is the star of the UNC show. He has thrown for 2,239 yards and 14 touchdowns this season (and for 6,659 yards and 53 touchdowns for his career), ranks second among ACC quarterbacks in completion percentage (65.4) and leads the league with 24.3 completions per game.

And Maye isn’t the only weapon in the Heels’ offense. Omarion Hampton has a conference-leading 110-rushing yards per game and has scored nine touchdowns, and former Tech receiver Nate McCollum is one of three wideouts with at least 300 yards receiving.

On defense, UNC is giving up 240.4 yards per game through the air, the second-worst mark in the ACC.

“We got a good opponent coming in,” Key said. “Credit to coach (Mack) Brown and what he’s done over his entire career and where UNC is this year. They had a tough loss last week, and I know they’ll be coming in hungry, ready to play, too.”

Tech’s other victory over a ranked team during the Key era came at Pittsburgh in 2022. The Jackets lost to top-ranked Georgia to end the 2022 regular season in Athens and to a ranked Ole Miss squad on the road earlier this year.

Saturday’s matchup presents yet another chance for Key’s team to defeat a ranked team, but also to show again it can respond from a disappointing loss.

“You can’t look in the rearview mirror. You have to move forward with those things because one thing can lead to another, and we’ve had examples this year of those things where you’ve got to put things past and be able to have short memories and move on,” Key said. “Like any time, you got to know what put you in position to win a game, what put you in a position to be where you were at the beginning of the fourth quarter. And then you got to know what you did that didn’t allow you to win the football game, eliminate those things, improve those things.

“Pushing through and working through those things and being able to get the win at the end is what we’ve got to continue to push forward with.”

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