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Top Ten of the Last Ten, #8: the 2009 ACC Championship Game

The one the NCAA doesn’t want you to talk about

ACC Championship - Clemson v Georgia Tech
Don’t believe what the NCAA tells you

It’s a game talked about in hushed whispers amongst the NCAA and their loyalists. Ask them about it and they’ll say this game doesn’t exist. It’s whited-out in the record books. Whatever you saw was merely an illusion. The events of that night in Tampa have been officially expunged. But those of us who were there know the truth, and today I will tell the tale for you all.

But before we get there: really, Tampa? What was the ACC thinking?

That is a rhetorical question of course; I feel at this point most of us know why the first few ACC football championship games were in Florida before the ACC wised up and moved it to Charlotte. But I’ll tell the story for those who don’t: Boston College’s admission into the league in 2005 gave the ACC the NCAA mandated twelve teams to split into divisions and establish a football championship game. Conference officials had a brilliant idea: put Miami and FSU in opposite divisions so they can meet in the championship game! And we’ll put the game in Jacksonville to sell the most tickets!

Thirteen championship games later, FSU has a few more titles under their belt. Miami... well, I’ll let you all know when they score their first ACC championship game touchdown.

Instead, in the third year of the championship, we all got this. The ACC’s dream matchup of the Canes and Noles in Jacksonville was a massive flop, and the conference subsequently awarded two-year test runs to Charlotte and the even further south Tampa. The game has remained in Charlotte, barring one bizarre exception I won’t delve into, which might lead one to ask: why was Tampa even considered in the first place? Well, it’s because the first post-Jacksonville game was to take place in 2008, and Charlotte had a conflict as it was hosting a technical education convention. That’s not a joke.

So the ACC championship game was in Tampa. In an NFL stadium with a pirate ship. Paul Johnson, fresh off winning his second ACC coach of the year award in two years at Georgia Tech, had the Yellow Jackets in prime position to win the school’s first conference championship since 1999 and claim their first BCS bowl berth. Between them and that was championship opponent Clemson, whom Tech had just barely defeated in a nail-biter all the way back in week 2. It was an exuberant victory for some, sheer heartbreak for others.

There was just one thing standing in the way.

ACC Championship - Clemson v Georgia Tech Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

C.J. Spiller was looking to cap his college football career with a conference championship, an award which had eluded the Tigers since 1991. His list of accolades up to then was already impressive, and he was named ACC Player of the Year just days prior. His placement on that year’s Heisman ballot left him just outside of a trip to New York. Even suffering from a touch of turf toe, Spiller was going to make his presence felt that night. On the first drive of the game, he carried the ball four times, busting Tech’s defense for 40 yards on his second carry and finishing the drive by walking into the endzone. Less than four minutes into the game, he was already well on his way to finishing with 238 offensive yards and four of the Tigers’ five touchdowns, a performance that would win him the game’s MVP award. Meanwhile, Tech’s first offensive possession sputtered out at the Clemson 31. Things were looking good for the Tigers early.

But they had just one problem of their own.

Clemson v Georgia Tech Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Georgia Tech and kickers have had an unusual relationship with each other during Paul Johnson’s tenure. Other than Harrison Butker, arguably the all-caps GOAT Georgia Tech kicker, every other one has been more of a goat. Scott Blair, fortunately, falls on the higher end of the spectrum, mostly thanks to the status he earned that season as a Clemson killer. In the week 2 matchup, Blair banged in two field goals in the final six minutes to give the Jackets a 30-27 win after they’d gone up 24-0 just twenty minutes into the game. He also finished that game with a sky-high passer rating.

When the aforementioned drive sputtered out, Blair trotted out to kick a long field goal - and made it. At 48 yards, it was a new career long for him. A couple possessions later, the offense managed to commit three consecutive penalties to turn second and goal at the Clemson 7 into second and goal at the 27. When the Jackets failed to convert on third down - committing another penalty in the process, which was declined - Blair was summoned again, this time to kick a 49 yard field goal. He made that one too. He would add two more field goals and three PATs on the night to score a total of 17 points. Scott Blair’s career statistics aren’t eye-popping, but he made a living terrorizing the Clemson Tigers.

Blair knocked in field goal #3 with seconds to go in the first half, and Tech’s offense spent the first six minutes of the second grinding out another touchdown to stake a 23-13 lead. But Clemson only needed five plays - four of which were C.J. Spiller carries - to pull it back within three. Tech, in turn, only needed three to spring Demaryius Thomas for a 70 yard touchdown to extend the lead back to ten. When Scott Blair booted field goal #4 with 1:11 remaining in the third quarter, the Jackets had this ACC championship all but locked up.

All but locked up.

On the following drive, Clemson ground out 72 yards in 4:11, converting two 4th down attempts - one by penalty - to bring the score to 33-27, Tech. An extended drive from the Jackets would ice the game. They got neither - Joshua Nesbitt was stopped at the line on 4th and one on Clemson’s 37 to turn the ball over on downs. Clemson’s next play: Spiller again, for 54 yards. Three plays later, the Tigers were in the endzone again. 34-33, Clemson.

But there was time left, and plenty of it, if the Jackets could make use of it. They almost didn’t: with five minutes remaining, Paul Johnson decided to go for it on fourth and one at his own 23 yard line. Nesbitt kept the ball and converted. (An apropos sign in the stadium that night read “Paul Johnson’s balls are the size of oranges.” Paul Johnson has never confirmed nor denied this.) From there, the offense ground, and ground, and ground, until Jonathan Dwyer broke free on the outside for a 15 yard touchdown. 39-34. A successful two-point conversion would bring Tech’s lead back to a comfortable seven points.

They didn’t get it. Nick Claytor misheard the snap count and jumped early. False start. Nesbitt kept the ball, dashed for the endzone, and got it - seemingly. Somehow, after video review, the call was reversed. Nesbitt was ruled down short of the goal line.

Clemson had one last shot - and just enough time on their side. Dwyer had scored with 1:20 remaining. Even with no timeouts, the Tigers had a chance. They started with the ball on their own 30 - Tech had kicked the ball short, because there was no chance in hell Paul Johnson was going to kick to Spiller, who had set an NCAA record for kick return touchdowns that year with 7. On first down, the Tigers were called for holding. Their second attempt at first down was incomplete. On second down, Kyle Parker threw a long bomb to Spiller, but it was well defensed by Mario Edwards. On third down, Parker completed a pass over the middle to Xavier Dye for 18 yards. That brought it to fourth and 2, with the final seconds ticking away. Parker stepped back to pass again, but his protection broke down. He tried to keep it and scramble for the two yards he needed.... but Derrick Morgan got him before he could get there.

Morgan walked to the sideline, pointing to his ring finger. Georgia Tech fans tossed oranges onto the field, celebrating the Jackets’ first trip to the Orange Bowl since 1967. Paul Johnson, in his typical matter-of-fact manner, noted 39 was, indeed, more than 34. C.J. Spiller had put on a career performance in Tampa that night, but the Jackets would not be denied. Together they lifted the ACC championship trophy - one which had eluded them for a decade.

Months later, the NCAA would deem this game should be vacated. Their reasoning and process was unfair, as is to be expected of the NCAA. Officially, this game never happened. But try telling that to the people who were there; the ACC, who put it in their Vault; or to the players who won those championship rings. The game is as real as the computer you’re reading this on. The memories remain - they’re something the NCAA can never take away.