September offers ACC teams yet another chance to begin repairing the conference’s battered football reputation. The opponents aren’t intimidating – no Alabama, LSU, Southern California or Green Bay Packers – but they are credible.
So below is a ranking of the ACC’s seven most important non-league games next month.
Not surprisingly, the top two are against the neighborhood bully, aka the Southeastern Conference. Moreover, most involve ACC teams with high expectations – hence, the absence of Duke-Stanford and Maryland-West Virginia.
Clemson vs. Auburn, Sept. 1, Atlanta: Clemson last opened against the SEC in the Georgia Dome four years ago. It did not, to be kind, go well, as Alabama rolled 34-10. Neither Clemson nor the ACC can afford another beatdown from the SEC, especially before a prime-time, national audience. And even without all-conference receiver Sammy Watkins, suspended two games for his offseason drug arrest, Clemson has the talent to compete against Auburn. In fact, Clemson dusted Auburn 38-24 last year. The preseason coaches poll ranks Clemson 14th, Auburn 25th.
North Carolina State vs. Tennessee, Aug. 31, Atlanta: Coached by former Virginia receiver Derek Dooley, the Volunteers should be better than in 2011, when they finished last in the SEC East with a 1-7 league record. Still, this should be the best of Tom O’Brien’s six Wolfpack teams. Mike Glennon and friends need to win this Friday Night Lights opener.
Florida State at South Florida, Sept. 29: The Seminoles’ marquee September game was to have been against West Virginia. But the Mountaineers bailed on the contest, leaving this as Florida State’s sternest non-conference test until the annual regular-season finale against Florida. This game intrigues for two reasons – it’s on the road against a team picked second in the Big East, and it falls a week after FSU plays Clemson. Regardless, for the Seminoles to fulfill their top-10 potential, this is a must-win.
Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh, Sept. 15: Once spirited Big East rivals, the Hokies and Panthers will reunite in 2013 in the ACC’s Coastal Division. Pitt appears in no preseason top 25s and is picked a pedestrian fifth in the Big East. Which is precisely why the Coastal Division favorites stumbling in their first road game would be a serious blow to the ACC. By the way, Pitt won the last three Big East meetings against Tech, in 2001, ’02 and ’03.
Penn State at Virginia, Sept. 8: If the Cavaliers are to continue their rise under Mike London, they ought to win at home against a program that, although iconic, has been virtually leveled by the Jerry Sandusky scandal and subsequent NCAA sanctions. The Nittany Lions’ defense appears solid, but transfers have decimated the offense.
North Carolina at Louisville, Sept. 15: Ineligible for the ACC championship game and a bowl courtesy of the Butch Davis regime, Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels will be defined by their regular season. And this figures to be their most challenging non-conference test. The overwhelming choice to win the Big East, the Cardinals return nine starters on defense, a compelling matchup against a UNC offense that boasts eight returnees.
Miami at Kansas State, Sept. 8: The Hurricanes are picked fifth in the ACC Coastal, the Wildcats sixth in the 10-team Big 12. So hardly a game for Erin Andrews or Kirk Herbstreit. But K-State was 10-3 last season, and any road win over the Big 12 would help.
ACC teams won’t win all of these games. But they need to win most.
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