There’s an opening for improved Georgia Tech in wild ACC

September 25, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's quarterback Jeff Sims (10) reacts 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

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September 25, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's quarterback Jeff Sims (10) reacts 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

The ACC is a mess. That’s nothing new for the Coastal Division, where Georgia Tech plays. The difference is that Clemson’s long-time lock on the Atlantic is slipping. The Tigers might figure things out eventually. They are vulnerable now. There’s real hope for the ACC’s other teams to break through.

There’s an opening here for Tech. A little more than three weeks ago critics wondered about the direction of the program under coach Geoff Collins. Since then, the Yellow Jackets pushed Clemson to its limit in Death Valley and dominated North Carolina on Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Beat Pittsburgh (3-1) on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and Tech (2-2, 1-1 ACC) will be in the thick of the Coastal race.

That might sound overly ambitious for a program that managed only three victories in each of the past two seasons. Tech lost to Northern Illinois of the Mid-American four weekends ago. The Jackets haven’t won back-to-back games with Collins as coach. They are 3½-point underdogs against Pitt.

Tech still has much to prove. It’s early. But it finally feels as if the Jackets are on the other side of their radical rebuild. Also, look at the state of the Coastal. Do you see a team Tech can’t beat? North Carolina was expected to do it, but got run out of the stadium as a two-touchdown favorite.

The Coastal has been a wild ride for a long time. Either Virginia Tech (five) or Georgia Tech (three) won the first eight division titles. The following seven Coastal titles were won by each of the division’s seven teams (there was no division format for 2020). The Jackets last did it in 2014. They’ve been better than 4-4 in the division once since then.

ACC media picked Tech to finish sixth in the Coastal. North Carolina (2-2, 1-2) and Miami (2-2) were 1-2 in the poll. Both have underachieved. ESPN’s Football Power Index now gives Pitt the best odds to win the division. Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are jumbled together behind them as the main challengers.

The Jackets can drastically change that math with a victory over Pitt. FPI gives them a 45% chance of doing it. The forecast favors Tech to win the next three games after that: at Duke (67%), at Virginia (52%) and vs. Virginia Tech (61%). Hard to argue with FPI’s assessment after seeing Tech’s rapid improvement since losing the opener.

The 14-8 loss at Clemson and the 45-22 victory over UNC included some of the best elements from Tech’s victories at Miami in 2019 and at FSU to begin last season. The Jackets were spirited, tough and unyielding. They shed some tendencies that hurt them in the past. Tech didn’t commit silly penalties and brushed off some bad calls, including one that robbed them of a touchdown.

“That would not have happened a year ago, myself included,” Collins said Tuesday.

Pitt is another tough test for Tech. The Panthers have an explosive offense. Quarterback Kenny Pickett already has 15 touchdowns with one interception. Tech will counter with a defense that hasn’t allowed much since the opener.

Northern Illinois scored touchdowns on consecutive possessions in the first half. Since then, the Jackets have allowed eight TDs and a field goal on 42 opponent possessions (excluding end of half). Throw out the game against FCS Kennesaw State, and it’s six TDs allowed on 29 drives.

The Jackets this season have as many takeaways and turnover on downs forced (10 combined) as TDs allowed (10). KSU scored two TDs when already behind 38-3. UNC scored one of its TDs while trailing 35-14 in the fourth quarter.

Pitt’s defense has given up plenty. Tennessee’s rebuilding offense scored 34 points despite losing its starting quarterback to injury early in the second quarter. Western Michigan of the MAC won 44-41 at Pitt while gaining 517 yards. Now the Panthers must deal with Tech quarterback Jeff Sims.

Sims didn’t play against KSU or Clemson after hurting his left arm in the first game. He was great running and throwing against UNC. Jordan Yates makes Tech two effective QBs for Tech. That’s two more than a lot of ACC teams.

That list includes Clemson. The Tigers rank 105th nationally among FBS teams in scoring and 121st in yards. That’s one reason why the other ACC teams have some hope of ending Clemson’s six-year reign at the top of the ACC.

“There are two teams at the top from a recruiting standpoint that are ahead of everybody else,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said during an interview with Miami radio station WQAM. “Anybody can (beat]) anybody now. Whether it is due to the transfer portal or some other reason, but greatness is about being consistently good. In our league, if you are not consistently good, you are going to get beat.”

The issue for Diaz is that the Hurricanes are one of those top recruiting teams, and they still aren’t winning big. Miami’s average class ranking over the past five full cycles is second to Clemson, according to the 247Sports composite. The Hurricanes are 42-24 overall, 27-14 in the ACC during that period. Clemson is 67-8, 40-4.

Collins has upgraded Tech’s recruiting. He still doesn’t get nearly as many highly rated players as Miami and Clemson, but the talent infusion is starting to pay off. For years the Jackets outscored opponents by tripping them with the triple-option. Now they are making hay with better players in a modern spread and an aggressive defensive scheme.

Sims is one of the top prospects signed by Collins. It’s always been obvious that he has the talent to take Tech places. Improved depth has allowed the Jackets to use a lot of players on defense. It was impressive to playing so fast while making UNC’s capable offense look inept.

Collins said his team has matured in Year 3.

“They’ve got really good energy; they’ve got really good vibes,” he said. “But it’s about business.”

Take care of it Saturday, and the Jackets will be in good position to make a run at the Coastal title.