Yellow Jackets embracing opportunity to clinch bowl trip

In a lot of ways, the Yellow Jackets are right back where they started.

After alternating losses and wins in the first seven games of the season, Georgia Tech turned a bit of a corner with a two-game winning streak to get to 5-4. Then a trip to Clemson happened, and coach Brent Key’s team came back home with their stingers blunted after a 42-21 loss.

And so here Tech sits, at .500 again with now just two games - at the very least - left on the schedule. The results of those next two contests will close the book on a season that has had more plot twists than a Charles Dickens tale.

Tech needs to win at least one of those final two to be afforded the chance to write an epilogue to 2023.

“This is a big deal for these kids,” Key said Tuesday during his weekly meeting with reporters. “A really big deal. As an alumni here, it’s a big deal for me. It’s a big deal for these guys that are coming back here. It’s a big deal for Georgia Tech. It’s a big deal for the Athletic Association. It’s a big deal for the entire Georgia Tech community. So did we talk about it? Heck yeah we talked about it. These guys understand that. And they know it’s something special they have in front of them to go out and work to get.”

The final tests over the next two Saturdays for Tech are vastly different. First up is Syracuse, a team tied for last place in the ACC standings and a team that has lost 5 of 6.

The Orange broke a five-game losing streak Saturday by beating Pittsburgh at Yankee Stadium in New York City. But at 5-5, Syracuse is also fighting for its bowl eligibility lives and needs to beat Tech or Wake Forest (Nov. 25) to reach the postseason.

The second test? Archrival Georgia, only the two-time defending national champions and winners of 27 straight.

Tech is favored by about a touchdown against Syracuse. It will likely be a major underdog against UGA.

“I brought up two things (Sunday): I said, ‘There’s 13 guaranteed days left. This is win and you’re in, next week’s bragging rights.’ That’s it. And we moved on to Syracuse,” Key said.

Tech will meet a Syracuse program that has been led by Dino Babers since 2016. It only had two winning seasons and two bowl appearances during that span and one of those bowl trips came last year when the Orange lost the Pinstripe Bowl.

Babers’ bunch looked well on its way to the postseason before September had even ended having won its first four games by a combined score of 177-43. Then came ACC opposition.

The Orange lost to Clemson, North Carolina, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Boston College, respectively, before beating Pitt last week. Now, like Tech, Syracuse needs to win at least one of its final two to earn a 13th game on the schedule.

“Coach Key is doing an amazing job at Georgia Tech,” Babers said Monday. “We know they have a fantastic team with fantastic athletes. We know it’s going to be difficult. We know it’s going to be hard. We’re looking forward to going down there and having the opportunity to play that football team.”

Key was with Tech, as the program’s offensive line coach, the last time the Jackets and Orange met. That game came in 2020 in Syracuse, N.Y., when Tech lost 37-20 thanks, in part, to five turnovers and 15 penalties.

Syracuse’s only trip to Atlanta was in 2013 when the Jackets won in a 56-0 rout. Key would certainly take that sort of score Saturday, but truthfully, the Jackets will be thankful no matter how they come about a win this weekend.

“We’ve talked about it before: You only have 12 opportunities guaranteed to you in the season to go out and do what you work all year for. Any time you don’t come out on top, it’s a painful deal to put that much effort and work into it,” Key said. “But like we talk about, also, earlier in the year, our response to any events is what’s gonna give us the outcome that we want. This team has responded well this year. When they’ve had a (loss) prior this year they’ve done a good job of rebounding, responding. I anticipate the same thing this week.

“(Alabama) coach (Nick) Saban used to talk all the time about never wasting a failure and looking the failures in the eye and approaching these things and not wasting ‘em. That’s really the approach as always.”