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Unlikeliest of foes meet in ACC championship

A conference championship game between Wake Forest and Georgia Tech probably was not what the ACC had in mind when it bulked up the league three years ago by adding Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech.

"They probably didn't factor in the Deacons, to be honest with you," said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe.

Neither did anyone else.

In a preseason media poll, Wake Forest was picked to finish a distant last in the Atlantic Division.

The Yellow Jackets didn't fare much better. They were predicted to finish third behind Miami and Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division, although one visionary – out of 65 voters -- did select Georgia Tech to win the ACC title.

"We had one vote to get in and they had none," said Jackets coach Chan Gailey. "It's obvious that we should be the big favorite."

The 23rd-ranked Yellow Jackets (9-3, 7-1 Coastal) are actually only a 2½-point favorite to end No. 16 Wake Forest's surprising title run in the ACC Championship Game on Saturday at Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium.

That's just fine with the Demon Deacons (10-2, 6-2 Atlantic), who are still trying to convince skeptics that they're for real.

"We've always been the little guy," said Jon Abbate, Wake's All-ACC linebacker. "We've always been counted out."

Prior to this season, there was seldom reason to take the Deacons seriously. From 1953 to 2005, Wake Forest won the ACC championship once. That title came in 1970. Since then, the Deacons have finished in last or next-to-last place in the ACC a total of 19 times.

Said All-ACC senior safety Josh Gattis: "When I committed to Wake, people questioned why."

Opposing fans derisively referred to the Deacons as Cake Forest and Grobe, hired in 2001 away from Ohio University, admits that "the thing we started battling from the day we got here was having a football program that was almost made fun of …"

Nobody is making fun of the Demon Deacons now. Wake set a school record with its 10 victories this season and also established a conference mark with six road wins. Despite losing starters at quarterback, running back and left offensive tackle, the Deacons opened the regular season with five victories. Then they closed by winning five of its last six games, including last Saturday's do-or-die showdown with Maryland in College Park.

"These guys have really exceeded my expectations," said Grobe, who was named the ACC's Coach of the Year on Tuesday and figures to get serious consideration for national coach of the year honors. "They've done some really cool stuff."

Among that cool stuff is placing five players -- Abbate, Gattis, kicker Sam Swank, center Steve Justice and offensive tackle Steve Vallos -- on the All-ACC first team.

But the most important player this season on Wake's roster might have been redshirt freshman Riley Skinner, who took over at quarterback after starter Ben Mauk sustained serious arm injuries in the season opener against Syracuse.

Skinner, who is returning to Jacksonville this weekend where he was a prep star at the Bolles School, kept the Deacons moving in the right direction even after star tailback Micah Andrews was lost for the season in the third game with a knee injury.

Among other accomplishments, Skinner led Wake to a victory over nationally-ranked Boston College and spearheaded a landmark 30-0 win against Florida State in Tallahassee. He led the ACC in passing efficiency (142.2 rating) and completion percentage (67.3 percent).

On Tuesday, Skinner was rewarded for his efforts when he was named the ACC's Rookie of the Year, beating out Clemson tailback C.J. Spiller, who was considered the favorite for the award.

"This definitely was not what we had planned and prepared for," said Skinner about being thrust into the starting lineup. "None of us wanted to see Ben get hurt. But having the opportunity, I just wanted to make the most of it and do everything I could to help us get wins on Saturdays."

Grobe credits Skinner's success to being "surrounded by a group of older, more mature guys that don't get a lot of credit but keep Riley Skinner comfortable."

No ACC team entered the season with more returning starters than Wake's 18.

If not for the Deacons, Georgia Tech would carry the title of the ACC's most surprising team.

The Yellow Jackets had plenty of returning talent with 15 starters, although they weren't seen as a threat to either Miami, which was picked to win the Coastal Division, or Virginia Tech.

But the Yellow Jackets throttled the Hokies in Blacksburg, Va. then beat Miami in Atlanta and have a chance to win their first ACC title since finishing as co-champions with Florida State in 1998.

While Wake is entering Saturday's game with the momentum of last week's clutch 38-24 victory against Maryland, Georgia Tech comes in still smarting from a bitter 15-12 loss to rival Georgia. The defeat was the sixth straight to the Bulldogs.

"I'd be lying if I said we weren't really down," said Tech defensive end Adamm Oliver. "It was a big ballgame for us. We really wanted to get those guys bad."

Whether the Jackets can turn things around in time to beat Wake Forest and earn a berth in the FedEx Orange Bowl could depend on the play of senior quarterback Reggie Ball, whose abysmal performance -- 6-of-22 passing with two interceptions and a fumble the Bulldogs returned for a touchdown -- in the regular-season finale had some wondering whether Gailey might choose to bench Ball in favor of sophomore backup Taylor Bennett.

"That won't happen," Gailey said this week. "[Ball] has taken us this far. He's the guy that's gotten us to nine wins this year, gotten us to the championship game. He's a senior. We're going to give him the opportunity to be successful."

With tailback Tashard Choice, the ACC's leading rusher, and standout receiver Calvin Johnson, the Jackets have plenty of options besides Ball, who led the ACC with 20 touchdown passes but was second with 12 interceptions and last with a 45.8 completion percentage.

"We lost that game [to Georgia] and it hurts, but we have to focus on our goals and win this Saturday," said Choice, who ran for more than 100 yards in each of his last five games and topped the ACC with an average of 100.3 yards per game. "It's right in front of us."

First, the Jackets will have to burst the bubble surrounding Wake Forest's season.

"We won some games that had people scratching their heads a little bit and wondering if it was kind of a fluke," said Grobe, alluding to a 14-13 victory over winless Duke on Sept. 9 that ended with the Blue Devils missing a short field goal on the game's final play. "But as we've gone through the season, we've had enough wins that our players certainly feel that it's a special year. I think our players are starting to realize that if we play good, we're not a bad football team."

And, maybe, the best in the ACC.

Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.