The quest for bowl eligibility will be the name of the game Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium when the Syracuse Orange take their talents to Atlanta to take on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
It may seem a bit early to say that with only six games gone for both sides. But with both standing at 3-3 and having a majority of their cupcakes in the rearview, it's possible this could be the difference between the spoils of bowl eligibility at 6-6 and spending the winter months toiling away in disappointment.
Over the past three weeks, disappointment is something Georgia Tech has gotten used to. The Yellow Jackets have gone down in successive games against Virginia Tech, Miami and BYU, thus sullying the good name of their 3-0 start. Paul Johnson's vaunted ground game is nearly at the 2,000-yard mark already, but his team's inability to consistently move the ball through the air continues to hold back the program.
The Orange, of course, have their own problems to figure out. They've gone 3-1 since opening the year with losses to Penn State and Northwestern, but the most impressive of those came against Tulane. First-year coach Scott Shafer has been left chasing the ghost of Doug Marrone, who seems to have bolted for the NFL at the best possible time.
The two programs have combined to win 10 games just once in the past decade (Georgia Tech, 2009), so this shouldn't come as much surprise. But both have had short sparks where fans thought their school was on the verge of national relevance, only to fall short.
It's unlikely we'll see the spark from the victor on Saturday, but working toward bowl eligibility would be a good start. Here's a look at everything you need to know about this ACC clash, including a prediction for who will come out on top.
When: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 12:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta
TV: ESPN GamePlan
Spread: Georgia Tech -7.5 (Vegas Insider)
Key Storyline: Would You Like a Quarterback?
I alluded to this in the intro, so bringing up quarterback play shouldn't come as a shock. It also shouldn't come as a shock because both sides have gotten tearfully dreadful play from their men under center all season long.
In an era where a new dual-threat quarterback pops up every week, it's at least curious to me how none have wound up at Georgia Tech. Or is it that they have arrived, but Johnson is completely incompetent at coaching the position?
I'm frankly not sure at this point, nor am I certain his novelty offense has been good for the program over the long haul. The Yellow Jackets admittedly weren't a hotbed of quarterback play under Chan Gailey, either, so it's probably not entirely Johnson's fault.
But to have starting quarterback Vad Lee completing only 42.7 percent of his passes speaks to a systematic flaw that needs to get fixed should Georgia Tech ever want to seriously compete. Lee heads into this week's game having failed to throw a touchdown pass in each of the past three games. He does a very nice job of running the triple-option, often making the right reads and being unselfish in giving up what could be solid gains for himself.
The problem is that Georgia Tech now and forevermore consigns itself to a loss the moment it falls behind double-digits because its "dual-threat" quarterback is often only threatening in one sense. Lee has flashed some talent throwing the ball; it'll be up to the coaching staff to mine it going forward.
A similar situation is ongoing in New York, only with Terrel Hunt showing a higher passing acumen. The sophomore quarterback has essentially taken the full-time reins after Drew Allen struggled to start the year. His addition to the starting lineup has sent a jolt through the Orange rushing game, which now sits 22nd in the nation with over 220 yards per contest.
He's helped open the floodgates for Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley, both of whom are averaging 5.5 yards a clip. Hunt himself has also been consistently effective when taking off, compiling a surprisingly good 78.6 adjusted QBR thus far.
But then there's that damn passing again, eating up all the bagged lunches and forcing us to question a perfectly good running quarterback. After two good starts against Wagner (LOL) and Tulane (heh), Hunt was miserable through the air against both Clemson and North Carolina State. He completed only 18 of 44 passes for 126 yards (yes, total) with five interceptions against zero touchdowns.
Those aren't exactly the most conducive stats toward winning. With Lee and Hunt both struggling through the air, this game might come down to which quarterback can be merely competent.
The questions about both quarterbacks aren't going away, so we have to look elsewhere in judging a favorite. That, precisely, is where the case for the Yellow Jackets winning on Saturday begins being built.
For all of my hemming and hawing about where the triple-option fits in the 2013 version of college football, it's undeniably effective. Georgia Tech averages 290.3 yards per game on the ground despite everyone knowing it would rather go all 127 Hours on itself than throw the football. The Yellow Jackets pile up stats against all types of defenses, even if it doesn't always lead to victory.
And they should be able to break one or two big plays against a Syracuse defense that's been prone to huge mistakes. Football Outsiders measures 19.4 percent of Orange defensive drives ending with their opponent averaging 10 or more yards per play, which ranks 105th of the 125 teams measured. Georgia Tech is admittedly not much better here at 17.6 percent, but its dual advantage in methodical drives makes it abundantly clear the Yellow Jackets have a decent-sized advantage defensively.
If Hunt can find the magic of his first two starts, Syracuse could pull this off. But look for the Yellow Jackets to move to 4-3 by a score. (Yes, that means they won't cover.)
Score: Georgia Tech 31, Syracuse 24
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