ATLANTA - Look who's back in the rankings and trying to nail down a championship.
Yep, it's the Miami Hurricanes, who have reason to be proud of themselves even if this sort of thing was once the norm in south Florida.
Trying to break away from the pack in the convoluted Atlantic Coast Conference, No. 23 Miami can move a step closer to locking down a division title with a win over Georgia Tech tonight. The Hurricanes could be celebrating as soon as Saturday if they win their sixth straight and one or two weekend games go their way.
"It's a good feeling, but to control our own fate, we've got to win (today)," offensive tackle Jason Fox said. "That's our only focus right now, and that's what is on everybody's mind - just Georgia Tech. We'll worry about the other stuff when we get there."
They've already come quite a long way.
Miami will go into a game with a ranking for the first time in more than two years. The Hurricanes had been missing from 41 straight polls, a dismal stretch that included a coaching change, the tragic shooting death of a star defensive player, an ugly brawl and the team's first losing season in a decade.
But second-year coach Randy Shannon has turned things around. Even with a redshirt freshman quarterback and a roster full of youngsters, the Hurricanes (7-3, 4-2 ACC) have gone more than a month without a loss to claim sole possession of first place in the Coastal Division.
In a league where nine teams are still in the running for two spots in the Dec. 6 ACC championship game, the Hurricanes are now one of only three that doesn't have to worry about what anyone else does.
"We've never really talked about it, but it was on my mind," quarterback Robert Marve said. "Are they going to lose? Aren't they going to lose? Who are they playing? I was trying to figure everything out, but it's simple now. Win, and we keep going."
The ACC champion earns a spot in the Orange Bowl, played at Miami's home stadium.
If the Hurricanes win on what figures to be a chilly night in Atlanta, there will be a little more scoreboard watching to do Saturday. Miami, at 5-2, would clinch the division title if North Carolina loses to North Carolina State, or if both Virginia and Virginia Tech win their games.
"It's probably one of the most important games we've been in around here in a while," said middle linebacker Glenn Cook, a sixth-year player. "It's for a championship, so it's important."
Georgia Tech (7-3, 4-3) had the inside track to the Coastal Division title going into its last game. A 28-7 loss to North Carolina didn't eliminate the Yellow Jackets, but it sure made things a lot tougher.
They'll need to beat Miami, of course, and then hope some other things go their way. They'd be rooting for Virginia to lose to Clemson on Saturday, then cheering for the Cavaliers when they faced Virginia Tech the following week. They'd also need North Carolina to lose again, either to the Wolfpack or the following week to last-place Duke.
Coach Paul Johnson shrugged off all the possible scenarios.
"Who knows?" he said. "The big thing for us is we've just got to focus on trying to beat Miami and all of that other stuff will sort itself out. There have been so many scenarios, and they change every week. We've got a ton to play for regardless. We are at home and it's the last home game for the seniors. With a win, we can at least lock up a tie for the top of our division. So we've got a lot to play for."
In an interesting twist, this is probably Miami's most important game since a late-season contest against Georgia Tech in 2005.
The Hurricanes were in the running for their sixth national championship and trying to wrap up a spot in the ACC championship game when they hosted the Yellow Jackets as a heavy favorite. But Georgia Tech pulled off a 14-10 upset that sent Miami into a nearly three-year-long tailspin.
Cook still remembers that one.
"We were ranked third. We were 8-1. If we won that game, we'd have been in the driver's seat for the ACC," he said. "This is probably the biggest one since then."
Georgia Tech has won three straight over the Hurricanes, all of them nail-biters. But so many things have changed since that last meeting, a 17-14 victory for the Yellow Jackets at the old Orange Bowl.
Miami moved into a new home (Dolphin Stadium) this season, and Shannon brought in one of the nation's top recruiting classes along with a new defensive coordinator (Bill Young). Georgia Tech fired Chan Gailey and replaced him with Johnson, who installed the triple-option offense that was so successful at Navy and Georgia Southern but remains an anomaly at the major-college level.
Citing all of the above, Johnson doesn't put much stock in what happened the last three years.
"That's kind of water under the bridge," he said. "Both teams are different this year. They have a different defensive coach, and we have a whole different staff."
SideBar: Miami at Georgia Tech
When: 7:30 p.m. today