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Johnson: Georgia Tech has a lot to play for the rest of year

Georgia Tech running back Orwin Smith (17) is stopped by Virginia Tech safety Antone Exum (1), linebacker Tariq Edwards (24), defensive back Eddie Whitley (15) and defensive end J.R. Collins (42) after a short gain in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Georgia Tech running back Orwin Smith (17) is stopped by Virginia Tech safety Antone Exum (1), linebacker Tariq Edwards (24), defensive back Eddie Whitley (15) and defensive end J.R. Collins (42) after a short gain in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

ATLANTA -- These are not high times at Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets have seen their shot at the ACC Championship game vanish. Yet even with a trip to Duke on deck, head coach Paul Johnson says there are reasons to look up.

There is that grudge match with Georgia looming Nov. 26 in Atlanta, and the No. 23-ranked Jackets (7-3, 4-3 ACC) can still reach 10 wins, too. That hasn't happened often.

Johnson, in fact, has looked that up.

"It's happened exactly three times in 50 years," Johnson said Tuesday when asked about boosting the spirits of his players after their 37-26 loss last Thursday to Virginia Tech eliminated Tech from ACC contention. "There's a lot to play for ... that (goal of making the ACC title game) goes off the board, you don't quit.

"You compete, and try to do the best you can do. Certainly, this team could accomplish a lot."

Johnson's research was off a bit; the Jackets actually have reached the 10-win mark three times in 55 years.

It happened last when Johnson's second Tech team went 11-3 in 2009 on the way to winning an ACC title that has since been vacated due to NCAA infractions (that were appealed last Sunday).

Before that, only coach George O'Leary's ACC championship team of 1998 (10-2) and Bobby Ross' 1990 co-national championship team (11-0-1) squad hit double digits since Bobby Dodd's boys went 10-1 in 1956.

So to suggest that all is lost wouldn't be right.

Junior cornerback Rod Sweeting knows that Saturday's game at Duke (3-7, 1-5) might not match the luster of back-to-back contests against top 10 teams Clemson (a 31-17 Georgia Tech win) and Virginia Tech, but the Blue Devils can be a steppingstone to something special.

"Win or lose, you've got to flush it," Sweeting said. "The ACC was on the line last game, but we've still got a chance to win 10 games and beat Georgia. The more you win, the better bowl you get. We'll keep our heads up. Duke is next."

The Blue Devils have lost five straight games, yet Sweeting and the Tech secondary can count on staying busy in Wallace Wade Stadium.

Duke quarterback Sean Renfree -- who committed to Tech before Johnson was hired late in 2007 only to switch schools after the coaching change -- and the Blue Devils throw the ball more than any other ACC team. They put it up more than 40 times per game, averaging 273 passing yards per outing.

Tech will be without perhaps its top defender in the first half in Durham. Sophomore linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu will sidelined after being suspended for two quarters by Johnson for throwing a punch at Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas.

Brandon Watts or Malcolm Munroe will start at Duke, which on paper appears to be by far the least daunting of six games in the back half of Tech's schedule.

In their 6-0 start, the Jackets beat teams who now have a combined record of 18-41. While losing three of the past four, Tech has played squads with a combined record of 30-10. After Duke, No. 13 Georgia (8-2) will visit Bobby Dodd Stadium.

There's plenty to be had. With one more win, the Jackets will hit the eight-win mark for the 12th time since Dodd retired after the '66 season. With two more wins, Tech would be at the nine-win mark for just the ninth time in that span.

There's a six-game bowl losing streak that can be snapped. That could be win No. 10, but first things first.

"I want to make it clear what I've talked about. We talked about trying to win eight games (first) . . . we need to beat Duke," Johnson said. More goals are "out there, but that's not the focus. The focus needs to be Duke. Otherwise, it won't be pretty.

"These guys have got a chance to do something that doesn't happen every week. They can be up there with some of the better (Tech) teams."