Back-to-back losses for Georgia Tech leave ACC with depth questions

Georgia Tech managed just 2.9 yards per carry in Saturday's 34-20 loss to Duke.

Mark Dolejs/Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets entered the 2015 season as the preeminent favorites to win the ACC Coastal Division crown, earning 96 out of 158 possible first-place votes in the media poll, and were tabbed as the most likely challenger to Clemson and Florida State in the conference’s hierarchy. That lasted four weeks.

Following a decisive 34-20 loss to Duke on Saturday afternoon, the 20th-ranked Yellow Jackets will have to go back to the drawing board — and the league’s depth behind its twin national powers remains a mystery. Barring significant jumps from the likes of Miami or Duke in the upcoming polls, the loss will leave the ACC with just two ranked teams with one-third of the season in the books.

For the second straight week, a slow start put Paul Johnson’s team behind the 8-ball. Notre Dame jumped all over the Yellow Jackets in Week 3 and, barring a futile late comeback attempt, the offense looked completely disjointed. That was understandable when facing a top-10 team on the road, but Duke followed suit: The offensively challenged Blue Devils rushed out to a 19-3 first-quarter lead and held on despite losing the total yardage, time of possession and turnover battles. Duke made up for its deficiencies by finding solid production from senior Shaquille Powell in the running game (88 yards, three touchdowns) and dominating in special teams.

As the first conference game for any Coastal member, the result will carry weight.

Duke and Georgia Tech have combined for the past three division titles and with former annual favorite Virginia Tech still looking to regain its footing without starting quarterback Michael Brewer, this matchup could prove pivotal come late November. Duke’s conference schedule is far, far easier — Georgia Tech’s crossover games are Florida State and Clemson — and while David Cutcliffe’s group clearly has issues without some of its top offensive playmakers from a season ago, this defense could propel the program back to Charlotte.

That is not to say that Duke is the league’s clear-cut No. 3 program. Quarterback Thomas Sirk & Co. are not scaring any defense and that sputtering loss to Northwestern is still fresh on the mind. The Blue Devils have issues. 

(Still, what a phenomenal win for a program that was a national laughing stock before Cutcliffe arrived. The Blue Devils’ second straight win over Georgia Tech, more than anything, helps prove that the 2013 group was not just a one-hit wonder in Durham. With most of those players gone, Duke remains competitive week in and week out. The Northwestern loss wasn’t pretty, but Duke isn’t going anywhere yet.)

Georgia Tech was supposed to be that team coming off a 11-win season and Orange Bowl romp, but personnel losses have undercut the offense and the defense leaves plenty to be desired.

Miami entered the weekend undefeated with a win over Nebraska and a high-quality quarterback — ample evidence to stake the claim for No. 3 among this group. NC State has also avoided suffering a loss thanks to one of the softest non-conference schedules among Power Five teams. 

Louisville was considered a dangerous team before taking three straight losses to open the campaign. Quarterback injuries have hit lesser teams looking to take steps forward (Boston College, Syracuse, Wake Forest) while Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh have taken significant hits on the disabled list as well. North Carolina’s season-opening loss to South Carolina looks less forgivable in retrospect. Mike London’s Virginia team was (predictably) exposed by a brutal non-conference slate.

Clemson and Florida State haven’t looked like juggernauts, either.

Which begs the question: Which teams are in this conference’s second tier? Advanced statistics point to Virginia Tech and Miami. Saturday afternoon’s result says Duke belongs somewhere in the mix. Either way, the ACC’s depth remains a concern after watching last season’s surprise power falter once again.

Lower-profile ACC programs took centerstage in Week 4 with Clemson and Florida State enjoying their bye weeks. Duke took full advantage, claiming high ground in the division race, but failed to make a truly convincing statement. This is going to take a while.