TAMPA — Georgia Tech and Clemson are football programs steeped in tradition and measured by titles.
But both schools have come up short of championships lately.
That hasn't exactly added to the tradition.
The Yellow Jackets last won an outright ACC title in 1990, the same season they claimed a share of the national title. The Tigers won the league outright for a 12th time in 1991, a decade after winning the national title, and haven't had another shot at either since.
The drought will end for one of them tonight.
The No. 12-ranked Yellow Jackets (10-2, 7-1), the top team in the Coastal Division for the second time in four years, meet the No. 25 Tigers (8-4, 6-2) out of the Atlantic Division in the ACC Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium.
"It's been a while, so it would cap off a special year here at Georgia Tech for us to go home with the ACC championship," said defensive end Derrick Morgan, the league's top defensive player.
Clemson's multithreat running back C.J. Spiller, the league's offensive player of the year, knows there's one truism about sports, and it's one of the reasons he eschewed the NFL draft to come back for his senior year:
"People remember champions," he said.
And they remember those that fell short.
"It means everything," former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said of a league title. "After being there 10 years, that's why I'm not there now."
Tonight's winner not only will add some impressive hardware to the trophy case once again, but it also will earn the league's automatic BCS berth and a spot in the Orange Bowl.
A prestigious destination such as the Orange used to be the norm for the Yellow Jackets … in the 1940s and 1950s. But they haven't been to the Orange since 1967 when they lost to Florida. Heck. They culminated their 11-0-1 season in 1990 with a win against Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl. Nice game and destination. Not exactly center stage in college football.
"It was always great to go to a bowl, and we had fun," said former Georgia Tech long snapper Andrew Economos, now in his fourth year with the Bucs. "But we always talked amongst ourselves, and we could only imagine what a BCS bowl would be like."
Clemson, in similar fashion, last played in one of the traditional big bowls when it went to the Orange to wrap up its national championship. The Tigers' reward for winning the ACC in 1991? A trip to Orlando for the Citrus.
"It would be a milestone for the program," Paul Johnson, the ACC coach of the year in his second season with the Yellow Jackets, said of a berth in a BCS (Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose) game.
"If you go to a BCS bowl and you're winning your conference," added Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who's in his first full season after taking over for Bowden midway through 2008, "then sooner or later you're going to have one of those special years where you have a chance to compete for the national championship."
But first thing's first.
"From an athletic standpoint, from a coaching standpoint, you're in the business to win, and there's only a certain amount of championships given out each year," said former Jesuit High and Georgia Tech quarterback George Godsey, an assistant coach at UCF. "That's what you strive for."
He was a redshirt freshman in 1998 when Tech shared the league title with Florida State. Not quite the same as winning it outright. Not for the fans. Not for the coaches. Not for the players. Not for the past players.
Something Jeff Davis can attest to. He was an All-America linebacker on Clemson's 1981 championship team (also the ACC's top defensive player and defensive MVP of the Orange Bowl) and a member of the Bucs for six seasons. He has been waiting a long time for a Tigers' revival.
"When you go through those long droughts, people have a tendency to be very harsh; people have a tendency to forget the history of your program," said Davis, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame who lived in the bay area for 18 years before returning to his alma mater a decade ago as assistant athletic director. "I tell people all the time, there's a difference between having a team and having a program. Clemson has a program.
"It's been 18 years, but (a title) would mean Clemson is still committed to not just competing in the ACC, but we're still committed to winning championships, something our program has been accustomed to."