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Tech sets up for magic year

ATLANTA - Sixteen long years ago, Georgia Tech made an improbable run to its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship and a share of the national championship.

While No. 1 is probably out of reach, the Yellow Jackets have positioned themselves for their best season since that memorable fall of 1990.

As the only team without an ACC loss, they can assure their spot in Jacksonville, Fla., (site of the Dec. 2 league championship game) by winning out. The next two weeks will play a huge role in determining just how this season will be remembered.

On Saturday, No. 13 Georgia Tech (5-1, 3-0) travels to Clemson to face the 12th-ranked Tigers. The following weekend, it's back home to meet tarnished power Miami, which appears to be the only Coastal Division team with a realistic chance to knock off the Yellow Jackets.

''I think about it all the time,'' star receiver Calvin Johnson said. ''There are two or three big games we have left - really, all of them are big - but there are several big ones that are going to tell whether we make it to Jacksonville or not.''

The Yellow Jackets went unbeaten in '90 to claim their only outright ACC title and the top spot in the coaches' poll. They shared No. 1 with Colorado, which beat them out in The Associated Press media poll.

Georgia Tech opened this season with a 14-10 loss to Notre Dame, blowing a 10-point lead at home, but bounced back with a five-game winning streak - its longest in six years. The most impressive performance was a 38-27 win at Virginia Tech, but the more important game might have come the following week.

Rallying for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and putting up a goal-line stand at the end, the Yellow Jackets held off Maryland 27-23 to avoid the sort of letdown that has plagued this program throughout the Chan Gailey era.

Gailey's teams have come up with some huge wins since he took over as coach in 2002, including upsets at Auburn and Miami last season. But they've never been able to maintain success on a consistent basis, resulting in four straight seven-win seasons and four straight trips to second-rate bowls.

This season, the Yellow Jackets have managed to keep winning even when they've struggled just a bit. They scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat Troy 34-20, and they came alive over the final 15 minutes when Maryland was poised for a major upset.

''I'd say it's the depth of our team as well as the experience,'' defensive tackle Joe Anoai said. ''We have been there and done that, we've learned from it. We hear what people say about us when we win a big game and then lose a game we probably shouldn't have.''

Clemson and Georgia Tech have emerged as the two best teams in the ACC, filling the void when traditional powers Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech all stumbled.

The Tigers (6-1, 3-1) lead the nation in scoring (43.9 points a game) and pace the conference in rushing (250.6 yards). The Yellow Jackets have a four-year starter at quarterback (scatter-armed Reggie Ball) and the nation's most dangerous receiver (Johnson has 35 catches, 559 yards and eight TDs). Both teams rank among the top 10 nationally in stopping the run.

''Our main goal is to make it to Jacksonville, because it's the only thing we can control,'' running back Tashard Choice said. ''We understand the big picture, but that's not in our head right now. It's down the track. We have to prepare to play Clemson this week, and prepare to play Miami next week. That's how you have to look at it.''

Even if the Yellow Jackets lose to Clemson, they can still put themselves in a commanding position with a win over Miami. That would leave them a game up on the Hurricanes and holding the tiebreaker advantage, with only North Carolina State (3-3, 2-1), North Carolina (1-5, 0-3) and Duke (0-6, 0-4) standing in the way of a trip to the ACC championship game.

With no clear successor to Ball waiting in the wings and Johnson likely to be playing on Sundays in 2007, Georgia Tech knows this could be their best chance to win the ACC for the next few years.

They certainly realize how long it's taken to get back to this point.

''We always figure to be the underdog,'' Johnson said. ''But we know that we are just as good as the next team. That's the way I see it. We have all the talent in the world on this team.''