As Saturday’s early ACC games came to a close, No. 12 Virginia Tech’s path to making a return trip to the league’s championship game next month in Charlotte became increasingly clear. With an 8-1 record, the Hokies are still atop the Coastal Division standings, but two of their three remaining games come on the road against the two teams that could potentially dethrone them.
None looms larger than Thursday night’s showdown in Atlanta against No. 22 Georgia Tech, one of two ACC teams to have beaten Virginia Tech more than once over the past five seasons. More often than not, the Hokies’ matchup with the Yellow Jackets has become a deciding factor in the division race. Georgia Tech beat Virginia Tech in 2006 and 2009, and ended up in the conference title game ahead of the second-place Hokies. Virginia Tech won in 2007, 2008 and 2010 on its way to Orange Bowl appearances.
This year, the stakes are just as high. If the Hokies win, they would eliminate Georgia Tech from contention in the division and only need one victory and a Virginia loss to secure the Coastal Division title for the fourth time in six years. If the Yellow Jackets win, it would turn into a three-team race, with the Hokies needing to win their final two games and hope Georgia Tech slips up in its final conference game of the year at Duke.
The battle for the Commonwealth Cup on Nov. 26 could also become an unofficial division championship game after Virginia beat Maryland Saturday to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. The resurgent Cavaliers already defeated the Yellow Jackets and also control their own destiny in the Coastal Division.
Including Virginia Tech’s home finale on Nov. 17 against North Carolina, who was shut out at North Carolina State on Saturday, the Hokies’ final three opponents have a combined record of 19-9 this season.
Though many criticized Virginia Tech’s easy schedule after the Hokies suffered their only loss of the year against Clemson last month, their first nine opponents had a combined record of 30-22 entering Saturday. According to the NCAA’s strength of schedule rankings — which only take into account combined record, not rankings — that made Virginia Tech’s schedule the 16th-toughest in the country.
It’s due in large part to the fact that Appalachian State has been defeated just twice against Football Championship Subdivision schools since losing to the Hokies to start the year while Arkansas State is 5-0 since falling to Virginia Tech and could win the Sun Belt Conference.
The Sagarin Ratings, which are used as part of the BCS formula, ranks the Hokies No. 54 in the nation in terms of strength of schedule.
Speaking of the Sun Belt, Thursday’s battle at Georgia Tech will further crystallize whether Virginia Tech could be headed to Southwest Texas come bowl season. As of right now, Virginia Tech could be on the verge of making a return trip to the Orange Bowl just as easily as it could be facing the third-place Pac-12 team in El Paso on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve as part of the Sun Bowl.
Remember, bowl selections are political and generally Virginia Tech fares well because of its fans’ willingness to travel. But after the Orange Bowl, the Chick-fil-a Bowl in Atlanta has the No. 2 choice and could be tempted to take Georgia Tech for ticket sales (although the city’s hotels would lose some business). The Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando has the No. 3 choice of ACC teams and may want to select Florida State for the same reasons.
It’s important to note how tricky the bowl selection process can get because the ACC has a “one-win rule.” If a bowl game doesn’t select the available team with the best conference record, it must take a team within one win in league play — so a lot could change on what happens these last few weeks of the regular season.
What’s clear, however, is that Virginia Tech’s stretch run should produce some tense, and exciting, moments. And perhaps the biggest obstacle comes in the form of a nationally televised road game against Coach Paul Johnson’s unorthodox offensive attack at Georgia Tech in five days.