ATLANTA -- The wiggle room is gone.
The Georgia Tech football team must win three of its five final games against FBS competition in order to become bowl eligible. With two of those games against national powers Clemson and Georgia, that means there is no room for error in the games in which Tech is reasonably expected to be favored.
"We're coming back home and we've got to win at home," said sophomore Adam Gotsis. "We can't afford to lose any more games this year."
After opening the season with three straight wins, Tech has lost three in a row and has lost any breathing room. Barring an upset win against Clemson or Georgia, the Jackets must sweep Syracuse, Virginia and Pitt to extend their streak of 16 straight postseason appearances.
The drama begins to unfold this week when the Yellow Jackets host Syracuse at Bobby Dodd Stadium. It's the first time the two teams have been as ACC opponents and the first time they've played in Atlanta.
"We're disappointed, we'll go back, try to get better," coach Paul Johnson said. "I can promise you, there ain't no quit in me. I don't think there's any quit in those guys in the locker room. We'll go back and work and see if we can get squared away."
Winning those three games is certainly possible, but won't be easy. Syracuse (3-3) just went to Raleigh and beat N.C. State 24-10. Pitt (3-2) played well in a 19-9 loss at Virginia Tech. And Virginia (2-4) beat BYU, which drilled Tech a week ago, in the season opener.
"We're halfway through the season," Johnson said. "I think the players are excited to come home, play a game and get things turned around."
In some ways Syracuse is similar to Tech. Both average 421 yards on offense - although the Orange lean more heavily on the pass. Tech leads the ACC and is sixth nationally in rushing with 290.3 yards per game.
Syracuse has been a better team since it moved Terrel Hunt into the starting quarterback role. The sophomore has thrown for 594 yards and seven touchdowns, with five interceptions. He can also run; he had 92 yards last week, the most by an Orange quarterback since Donovan McNabb in 1998.
The running game is led by junior Jerome Smith, who has 482 yards and eight touchdowns. He has two straight 100-yard games after running for 140 against N.C. State. Prince-Tyson Gulley offers an alternative to Smith's power; he ran for 132 yards last week for his first career 100-yard game and has 316 yards this season.
Tech has better defensive numbers -- the Jackets allow about 40 yards fewer yards per game - but Syracuse brings a heavier pass rush, evidenced by their 20 sacks. Tackle Jay Bromley is a powerhouse with six sacks and nine tackles for loss.
It will be crucial for Tech to handle the pressure better than it has the last three weeks. Virginia Tech, Miami and BYU all successfully got after Vad Lee and neutralized his effectiveness.
"We're fully expecting a lot of stunts, a lot of blitzes, that kind of thing," Johnson said.
Much could depend on the battered Tech offensive line. There's no guarantee that senior Ray Beno's foot will be improved enough to allow his return. Morgan Bailey has suffered through a series of frustrating injuries that have kept him in and out of the lineup. Center Jay Finch and guard Shaq Mason are playing, but both are dinged up.
The pressure on the line has been a factor in Tech's lack of ability to consistently hit the outside pitch man. The Jackets have gotten a solid inside effort from B-backs David Sims (353 yards) and Zach Laskey (186 yards). The top A-back runner is Robert Godhigh (254), but he's also the team's best perimeter blocker.
"We've practice since spring ball against a good rush team in our kids and I think that has helped us a lot," Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said. "The biggest thing is that we have to continue to understand how important it is this week to play disciplined football. Option football is about tackling all three guys that could get the football so we have to be extremely sound in who you have and finish your job."