The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets seek a 2-0 start to ACC play for the first time since 2014 against week five Coastal Division foe North Carolina following last week’s 35-17 defeat of Pittsburgh. Saturday’s matchup will mark the 53rd meeting between Georgia Tech and North Carolina, with Tech leading the series 28-21-3 (Note: I am including UNC’s vacated win in 2008 for this article). Presently, however, North Carolina is on a three game winning streak, a streak that the Jackets will aim to end on Saturday.
The first meeting on the gridiron between Georgia Tech and North Carolina took place in 1915 where The Golden Tornado—the moniker by which Georgia Tech’s football team was known under Head Coach John Heisman—defeated the Tar Heels by a score of 23-3 in Atlanta. Tech would go on to defeat North Carolina in each of its subsequent three meetings with the Tar Heels in 1916, 1927, and 1928.
Well before they were ACC foes, Georgia Tech and North Carolina were originally Southern Conference rivals, meeting in consecutive seasons from 1927 until 1935, following Tech’s joining the Southeastern Conference in 1932. During that time, the Yellow Jackets were 4-3-2 against the Tar Heels.
Between 1935 and 1980, the Yellow Jackets and Tar Heels met four times, with Tech winning all four meetings in 1943, 1944, 1945, and 1974.
With Tech’s departure from the now-defunct Metropolitan Conference for the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1978, the Yellow Jackets and Tar Heels once again became intra-conference rivals. Georgia Tech and North Carolina have met on the gridiron as ACC foes in consecutive seasons dating back to 1980. As ACC foes, the Yellow Jackets are 18-18-1 against the Tar Heels.
While that single tie may ostensibly seem insignificant, Jackets fans know that it is anything but, for that single tie arguably cost Georgia Tech a unanimous national championship in 1990. The 11th-ranked Yellow Jackets arrived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina for the fateful matchup against Head Coach Mack Brown’s Tar Heels on a nine-game winning streak (dating back to the 1989 season) and fresh-off an impressive Top 25 victory against the 15th-ranked Clemson Tigers in Atlanta. Thanks to three Yellow Jacket turnovers, Tech trailed 13-10 late in the fourth quarter. Instead of going for a touchdown, and thus the win, Head Coach Bobby Ross opted to kick a field goal, and the Jackets had to settle for the 13-13 tie. Finishing the season undefeated at 11-0-1—highlighted by a thrilling 41-38 victory over Virginia and a 45-24 Citrus Bowl drubbing of Big Eight power Nebraska—Tech ultimately was declared national champion by the UPI Coaches Poll, whereas Colorado was declared such by the Associated Press, thus splitting the national championship in 1990.
Since 1980, to describe the series as “streaky” would be an understatement. North Carolina owns one five-game winning streak (1980-1984) and three three-game winning streaks (1986-1988, 1992-1994, and, as mentioned earlier, 2014-2016). Georgia Tech owns one six-game winning streak (1998-2003), one five-game winning streak (2009-2013), and one three-game winning streak (2005-2007).
In addition to being streaky, the series, at least during the Paul Johnson Era, has been characterized by several high-scoring matchups. Indeed, the meeting between Georgia Tech and North Carolina in 2012, which Tech won 68-50, held the distinction of being the highest-scoring game in the history of ACC at 118 points until 2016 (when Pittsburgh defeated Syracuse 76-61 for a new record of 137 points scored). Also notable was 2014’s matchup, which North Carolina won 48-43, totaling 91 points scored.
In glaring contrast to the barn-burning affairs we have seen during the Paul Johnson Era, however, was 2006’s meeting in Chapel Hill that Tech won 7-0 en route to the Coastal Division crown and a berth in the ACC Championship Game. Interestingly enough, this otherwise defensive slugfest would feature something that Yellow Jackets fans now eagerly anticipate in the Paul Johnson Era: namely, the vaunted “Death March”, a possession resulting in a touchdown characterized by its lengthy duration, caused by the offense’s methodical progression down the field at a rate of three to four yards per play (typically, with very few, if any, explosive plays), resulting in easily converted third downs. Death Marches inexorably end in touchdowns, by definition, but not before at least 10 minutes have melted off the game clock. On a drive that featured 20 plays, the Jackets went 80 yards for a Tashard Choice rushing touchdown, possessing the ball for a sizable 10 minutes and 30 seconds.
While the Death March might have been popularized by Paul Johnson’s teams at Georgia Tech, it should be noted that 2006’s team was able to go on one of its own, at a time when Jackets fans had no name for such a phenomenon.
Based off recent history (that is, during the Paul Johnson Era: 2008 to present), we can expect the following for Saturday’s matchup. One, at least one team will score more than 30 points. Two, both teams will combine for no less than 54 points. Three, the game will likely still be in doubt going into the fourth quarter: that is, the game will be decided in the fourth quarter. Only in North Carolina’s win in 2016 was the game no longer in doubt going into the fourth quarter. Going further back, it should also be noted that the last time North Carolina met Georgia Tech holding a three-game winning streak against the Jackets, which was in 1995, Georgia Tech ended the streak by winning 27-25 in Atlanta.
Historically based prediction: Georgia Tech defeats North Carolina 38-28.