Think back to when Virginia Tech’s schedule first came out in February. The guess here is many considered Thursday night’s road game in Atlanta to be the the Hokies’ biggest impediment to a marquee bowl game. Well, as it turns out, that may be the case.

No. 10 Virginia Tech faces a must-win at No. 20 Georgia Tech if it hopes to earn a rematch with Clemson in the ACC championship game. As I mentioned in my advance for Thursday’s paper, the winner of the Hokies-Yellow Jackets matchup has gone on to win the ACC’s Coastal Division the past six years, and it’s looking more and more like 2011 with be the seventh.

If the Hokies (8-1, 4-1) win this season’s matchup, they would eliminiate everyone but themselves and Virginia (6-3, 3-2) from the division title race. If Georgia Tech (7-2, 4-2) is victorious, the Yellow Jackets would need to win at Duke on Nov. 19 and have the Cavaliers lose one of their remaining three games to secure a berth in the league’s title game.

For the Hokies, though, this game carries even more meaning. They’ve yet to beat a team ranked in the top 25 this year, and though Virginia Tech sits in the top 10 in November for the first time since 2005, quarterback Logan Thomas admitted this week his team carries a “chip on its shoulder” into this contest.

“This is the one we’ve got to get,” Thomas said. “We say every one gets more and more important, and this is as important as it comes.”

After the jump, check out the three things I’ll be watching, and let us know what you think will happen tonight in our game poll.

Logan Thomas

Nine games into the season, it almost seems like a given that running back David Wilson will get his 100 yards, but he’s not the barometer of this Virginia Tech offense. That distinction belongs to Thomas, who showed in the Miami win what he’s capable of when he’s on top of his game (23 of 25, 310 yards, five total touchdowns). This, though, will be the redshirt sophomore’s first start in a hostile road environment (sorry, but East Carolina, Marshall, Wake Forest and Duke don’t count), an important step for his development .

In his first big game of the year against Clemson, Thomas looked shaky and unsettled at times, throwing for just 125 yards. The Hokies must get a better, and more patient, performance against an Al Groh defense that will force Thomas to complete short and intermediate routes, even though this is the first truly hostile environment Thomas will have encountered this year.

Pay careful attention to how Thomas performs in the red zone. Not only is he the Hokies’ best short-yardage back at this point, he has completed just 43.8 percent of his passes inside and opponent’s 20-yard line (as opposed to 63.3 percent elsewhere on the field). Georgia Tech ranks sixth in the country in terms of turning red zone trips into touchdowns, so the Hokies must improve upon their 54 percent touchdown conversion rate if they hope to escape Atlanta with a win.

Defensive personnel changes

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster decided to change his lineup for this game, moving defensive end J.R. Collins to defensive tackle, giving linebacker Jack Tyler his first start of the season and using cornerback Kyle Fuller as a whip linebacker. How those three handle their new positions will go a long way toward determining just how effective the Yellow Jackets offense will be Thursday night. On the Hokies starting defense, only Fuller and cornerback Jayron Hosley had more than one tackle in last year’s 28-21 win over Georgia Tech.

So at 240 pounds, can Collins provide an adequate push up the middle since Yellow Jackets quarterback Tevin Washington, the team’s leading rusher, loves to run those dive plays through the teeth of the defense. And will the quickness of Collins’s replacement, redshirt sophomore Tyrel Wilson, be enough to overcome his lack of size (219 pounds)? Remember, nobody on the Hokies’ starting front four tonight saw more than six snaps against the Yellow Jackets a year ago. Maybe the biggest question mark is how will Tyler, inserted into the lineup for his speed and proficiency attacking downhill in the run game, hold up facing this unique offense for the first time?

Start fast

Georgia Tech has lost 16 times since Coach Paul Johnson took over in 2008 and in 12 of those losses, the Yellow Jackets have fallen behind early. Facing a deficit neuters Johnson’s run-heavy offense to a degree, because Georgia Tech’s passing game is predicated on catching the opposing defense off-guard rather than throwing the ball with great frequency. Foster talked this week about the Hokies’ 2009 loss to Georgia Tech, when Virginia Tech shut down the Yellow Jackets’ offense but trailed at halftime because of an offense that couldn’t score. The Hokies have trailed early in five of their nine games this year, but they’ll need to avoid a slow start Thursday if they want to put Bud Foster’s defense in the best position possible to slow down Johnson’s unorthodox offense.

Before the season I predicted the Hokies would prevail in this one, and though my gut tells me this group is a year away from reaching its peak, I’ve got a hunch Virginia Tech is going to get their rematch with Clemson in the ACC championship game. That, though, is unlikely to happen without a win Thursday night, so chalk me up for an oh-so-close victory over the Yellow Jackets.

My prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Georgia Tech 24

But what do you think will happen Thursday? Can the Hokies improve to 9-1 and remain in the driver’s seat atop the Coastal Division. Or will Georgia Tech score a second straight impressive home win just 12 days after handing Clemson its first loss of the season? Vote in our poll.