Note: Georgia Tech football team Sept 9 2006 // 2006 Virginia Tech at Wake Forest lined up //
Georgia Tech's 2006 season began with a tough game against No. 2 Notre Dame. Though the Yellow Jackets lost 14-10, they took an early 10-0 lead over heavily favored Notre Dame until the Fighting Irish scored 14 unanswered points to win the game. Tech bounced back from the narrow loss by winning five straight games, including a 38-27 victory in Blacksburg, Virginia against the No. 11 Virginia Tech Hokies, who would later go on to finish second in the division.
Heading into the seventh game of the season, Georgia Tech was 5-1 and had an undefeated 3-0 record in conference play. At No. 12 Clemson, however, Tech suffered its first conference loss and largest loss of the season, losing 31-7. Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson failed to record a reception for the first time in his career during the loss. Tech followed the loss by winning its next four games. Following the third win, a 7-0 shutout of North Carolina, Tech clinched the Coastal Division championship and a bid to the ACC Championship Game.
After clinching a spot in the championship game, Tech defeated ACC opponent Duke, then prepared for a game against traditional rival Georgia before heading to Jacksonville for the ACC championship. In the game against Georgia, the No. 16 Yellow Jackets were upset by the unranked Bulldogs, who intercepted Tech quarterback Reggie Ball twice and held him to just 42 passing yards in the game. Georgia's victory marked the sixth consecutive victory in the rivalry and sent Tech into the ACC Championship Game on a down note.
Wake Forest began the 2006 season on September 2 with a home game against Big East conference opponent Syracuse. Wake defeated Syracuse 20–10, but starting quarterback Benjamin Mauk suffered a season-ending injury when he fractured his arm, dislocated his shoulder, and suffered a torn labrum. Backup quarterback Riley Skinner replaced Mauk in the game, and would serve as Wake's starting quarterback for the remainder of the season.
The Deacons struggled in their second game, beating ACC rival Duke 14-13 by blocking a Duke field goal on the final play of the game. Following the close call against Duke, however, Wake Forest went on to win its next three games. A 34-14 win over Football Championship Subdivision Liberty University gave Wake its first 5-0 start since 1987.
In its sixth game of the season, Wake Forest suffered its first loss. Against the No. 15 Clemson Tigers, Wake gave up 24 points in the fourth quarter to give Clemson a 27-17 victory. The Demon Deacons recovered quickly from the loss and proceeded to begin another winning streak, this time against ACC opponents. Over the next four weeks, Wake defeated North Carolina State, North Carolina, No. 16 Boston College, and Florida State. The 30-0 win over Florida State marked several milestones for the Deacons. The win marked the first time in school history that the Deacons had earned nine wins in a single season. In addition, Wake Forest recorded its first win against Florida State in Tallahassee since 1959 and became the first team to shut out a Bobby Bowden-coached Florida State team in Doak Campbell Stadium. The game continues to be celebrated in Tallahassee, as it marked the end of the Jeff Bowden era.
In its next game, however, the Demon Deacons fell at home to the No. 19 Virginia Tech Hokies, 27-6. The Hokies would later go on to finish second in the Coastal Division and earn a bid to the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl. Wake Forest recovered from its second loss of the season to earn a 38-24 victory against Maryland—its first since 1998—clinching the Atlantic Division championship and earning a bid to the ACC Championship Game. Wake became the first team in ACC history to go 6-0 in ACC road games, and extended the school record for wins in a season to 10.
In the weeks leading up to the game, the point most emphasized in media coverage of the game was the fact that Wake Forest had not won an ACC championship in football since 1970. The point spread for the game was relatively constant, with spread bettors favoring Georgia Tech by a single point.
Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who was voted the preseason ACC Player of the Year, was expected to do well in the ACC Championship Game. Johnson recorded 59 receptions for 889 yards and 13 touchdowns heading into the championship game. On November 29, Johnson was named the ACC Player of the Year (POY), fulfilling the expectations set when he earned preseason player of the year honors. On the day after Johnson earned ACC POY honors, he was named to the Rivals.com All-America team, an annual selection of the best players at each position in the United States. Johnson was the first Tech player in over a decade to be selected as an All-American in two consecutive seasons.
Tech quarterback Reggie Ball was not nearly as acclaimed. Despite leading the ACC with 20 touchdown passes and being named an All-ACC honorable mention, there were doubts about Ball's effectiveness. Since starting at quarterback in his freshman year, Ball went 0-4 against Tech rival Georgia, and was excoriated for his inconsistency. After suffering a game-losing fumble against the Bulldogs, commentators questioned how well Ball would recover from the setback before the ACC Championship Game.
Supporting Ball and Johnson were a corps of capable receivers including James Johnson and Greg Smith. James Johnson was Tech's second-leading receiver behind Calvin Johnson, and recorded over 500 receiving yards heading into the ACC championship. During Tech's game against Virginia Tech, James caught a 49-yard touchdown pass for the game's first points. Smith was Tech's fifth-leading receiver in 2006, but had several key plays (including two touchdown receptions) in Georgia Tech's game against the Duke Blue Devils.
On the ground, the Georgia Tech rushing attack was led by Tashard Choice. Choice was the leading rusher in the ACC, averaging over 100 yards per game. Against North Carolina State, Choice recorded 164 rushing yards on 34 carries, earning what was then a single-game career high in rushing yards. In the days before the ACC championship, Choice was named to the second-team All-ACC team, and was considered to be a threat on offense against Wake Forest.
Wake Forest, which had begun the season with Benjamin Mauk as its starting quarterback, ended the season with redshirt freshman Riley Skinner filling the position. Despite having almost no experience starting at quarterback before the season, Skinner was named the ACC's rookie of the year. Skinner led the ACC in completion percentage, passing efficiency, and interception rate. In addition, Skinner set 10 new single-season passing records at Wake Forest during the 2006 season. In the days before the ACC Championship Game, Skinner was named to the second-team All-ACC team, joining eight other teammates selected to one of the two All-ACC teams.
Two of the other Deacons selected for All-ACC honors were senior tackle Steve Vallos and junior center Steve Justice, both of whom were key components of the Wake Forest offensive line. Vallos had been considered for the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy and won first-team Associated Press All-America honors after the championship game. Center Steve Justice started all 14 games during Wake Forest's 2006 season, and participated in 98 percent of the Deacons' offensive plays.
Wake Forest also boasted one of the nation's best punters and placekickers, Sam Swank. Swank was one of the team's nine 2006 All-ACC selections, and performed extremely well during the season. Swank led the Deacons in points scored, and was successful on five of seven kicks from beyond 50 yards during the season. Swank was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award and Lou Groza Award, which go to the nation's best punter and placekicker, respectively. Following the championship Game, Swank was named to the ESPN and Sports Illustrated first-team All-America teams.
Heading into the game, Georgia Tech had the 11th best rushing defense in FBS football. That defense was led statistically by linebacker Philip Wheeler, considered by many to be one of the nation's best blitzing linebackers. In the days leading up to the championship game, Wheeler was named to the Rivals.com All-America team. In addition, Wheeler was a second-team All-ACC selection and a two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Week.
On the defensive line, Georgia Tech featured defensive tackle Joe Anoa'i and defensive end Adamm Oliver. Anoa'i, a first-team All-ACC selection, headed into the ACC Championship having earned six tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss in Tech's previous game against Georgia. Anoa'i also forced and recovered a Georgia fumble that eventually led to a Tech field goal. Adamm Oliver was a second-team All-ACC selection who was fourth on the team in total tackles and second on the team in tackles for loss. Oliver created the game-winning play for the Yellow Jackets against Miami when he forced a fumble that set up the game-clinching touchdown. Georgia Tech also had several important defensive backs. Safety Jamal Lewis was a first-team All-ACC selection and the team's leading tackler. During the Yellow Jackets' game against Samford University, Lewis returned an interception 97 yards for a touchdown. The return was the fourth-longest in Georgia Tech history and was the longest since a 102-yard return in 1969.
The Wake Forest defense was led by All-America honorable mention linebacker Jon Abbate. Abbate, who was a first-team All-ACC selection, was the team's leading tackler and earned the second-most tackles in the ACC during the season. Safety Josh Gattis was another star on the Wake defense. A first-team All-ACC selection, Gattis was the only player in the ACC to earn 70 tackles and five interceptions. On the defensive line, defensive end Patrick Ghee stood out. An honorable mention All-ACC selection, Ghee ranked fifth on the team in tackles and had three interceptions.
The 2006 ACC Championship Game kicked off at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida on December 2, 2006. The game was broadcast on ABC, and earned a 4.0 television rating. This figure was down slightly from the previous year's game, which earned a 5.1 rating. Brad Nessler, Bob Griese, Paul Maguire, and Bonnie Bernstein were selected to announce the game.
At kickoff, a light breeze was blowing from the northeast at 5 miles per hour (8.0 km/h), the air temperature was 59 °F (15 °C), and the weather was foggy with a light rain. Rain had been falling for several hours, turning the field into a muddy mess that would hinder play throughout the game. 62,850 tickets were sold for the game, and that number was given as the official attendance. Real attendance estimates range from 40,000-50,000, due to the poor weather and the fact that the stadium was half-empty through much of the game.
During the pre-game coin toss, a member of the Wounded Warrior Project, which rehabilitates wounded American war veterans, threw the ceremonial coin. Georgia Tech won the coin toss and elected to receive the ball to begin the game. After Georgia Tech made its selection, Wake Forest elected to defend the north end zone to begin the game, forcing Georgia Tech's kickers to kick into the wind during the first and fourth quarters.
Wake Forest kicked off to begin the game, and Georgia Tech returned the kick to its own 24-yard line. On the first play of the game, Tech running back Tashard Choice attempted a rush, but was stopped for a loss of one yard. The play set the tone for the rest of the game, which would be a hard-fought, low-scoring defensive struggle. After the loss, Choice broke free on the second play of the game for a 24-yard run and a first down. On the next two plays, the Georgia Tech offense used their passing attack as quarterback Reggie Ball completed two passes, driving the Yellowjackets into Wake Forest territory. Subsequent plays allowed Tech to penetrate the Wake Forest red zone, but there, the Demon Deacons' defense stiffened. Despite having a first down inside the Wake Forest 10-yard line, Georgia Tech did not cross the goal line. Denied a touchdown, Georgia Tech was forced to settle for a field goal attempt from kicker Travis Bell. Bell's kick was good, and with 9:59 remaining in the first quarter, Georgia Tech took a 3–0 lead.
Following Georgia Tech's post-score kickoff, Wake Forest received the ball, but failed to gain a first down. The Deacons' offense went three and out and was forced to punt. On Tech's next possession, they too had difficulty moving the football on offense. Though they picked up a first down off of a penalty on Wake Forest, they were unable to gain a first down by their own devices and were forced to punt the ball away.
The two teams traded possessions once more, and as the first quarter came to an end, Georgia Tech was in possession of the ball but was preparing to punt it away after yet another failure to pick up a first down.