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Clemson, Tech look to end title droughts

ATLANTA -- Derrick Morgan can't remember the last time Georgia Tech won an Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

Not that he should.

He was a 1-year-old when the Yellow Jackets captured their lone ACC title in 1990, on the way to an unbeaten season and a share of the national championship.

''That's a long time ago,'' Morgan said, shaking his head.

Ditto for Clemson, a one-time ACC powerhouse that hasn't finished on top of the league since 1991. The No. 25 Tigers are just as eager to break their long drought when they face the 12th-ranked Yellow Jackets in the conference championship game Saturday night at Tampa, Fla.

''This is absolutely vital to us as a program,'' said Tigers offensive lineman Thomas Austin. ''We have a winning tradition here at Clemson. That is something we take pride in. To have not won a conference championship in 18 years, we see this as a unique opportunity for us. We need to capitalize on it.''

In a sense, this is a bit of a throwback game. The Tigers once dominated the ACC, winning seven titles from 1978-91 (as well as the national championship in '81). Georgia Tech was a five-time Southeastern Conference champion and rising through the ranks in the ACC by the late '80s.

Then came Florida State.

The Seminoles joined the conference in 1992, and the balance of power shifted dramatically. Coach Bobby Bowden's team won or shared the top spot in 12 of its first 14 seasons. Then, just as Florida State began to fade, Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004 and immediately took over a leading role, winning the title in three of its first five years.

Clemson (8-4) went through hard times under Tommy West, including a last-place finish in 1998, and tried to chase down Florida State by hiring Bowden's son, Tommy. There were some promising seasons that never quite lived up to expectations, and Tommy Bowden was dumped midway through last season.

Led by neophyte head coach Dabo Swinney, the Tigers got off to a 2-3 start this year that had the faithful grumbling. But six straight wins silenced Swinney's critics and carried his team to a division title.

One more win will bring the title Clemson really wants.

''People remember champions,'' said C.J. Spiller, the team's star running back. ''One of the reasons I came back for my senior year was to try to win a championship. That's something we haven't done around here in 18 years. I wanted to try to help this team accomplish that. If we can win the league, people will know they have something to fear when they're playing Clemson.''

Georgia Tech also has long-term aspirations. The Yellow Jackets made it to the title game in 2006, losing a yawner to Wake Forest, but that was a mere blip in the largely mediocre Chan Gailey era.

Second-year coach Paul Johnson sees no reason his team can't compete for championships on a regular basis, and he's spreading that message to his players. They're not looking for another one-off shot at a ring; they want to build something that lasts a while.

''This is what we've been working for the last couple of years,'' Morgan said. ''Now, we've got to get it.''

As if they needed any extra motivation, both teams are eager to get over especially disappointing losses to their state rivals last week. Clemson was routed at South Carolina, while Georgia Tech -- which had climbed to No. 7 in the country -- was stunned at home by unranked Georgia.

It will be intriguing to see how the Yellow Jackets (10-2) bounce back. They had snapped a seven-year losing streak to Georgia in 2008 and appeared ready to take a firm upper hand on the struggling Bulldogs. Instead, they gave up 339 yards on the ground and couldn't make it all the way back from a 14-point halftime deficit, losing 30-24.

''We get a chance to make up for what happened this past Saturday,'' running back Jonathan Dwyer said. ''It will help the fans get over that if we can win the ACC.''