Can Thomas regain form and lead Hokies past Miami and into ACC Title game?
(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Sports/Peter Casey)
While everyone's attention this offseason has been on the changes happening now and in 2014 for the ACC it's finally time to take a look at what will go down in the new look league when the season gets under way on August 29th. Yes, you read that correctly – the ACC gets a two day start on most of the rest of the country and you can bet we'll be tuning in for the game that will kick this season off right.
Unfortunately for those who like new and shiny things, this league isn't going to be about the new guys in town in 2013. In fact, the old names and faces of ACC country are likely to dominate the landscape once again. To be sure we will be interested in seeing how the new guys will fit in, however when it comes to what matters or should matter for this league – the conference title game and continuing to grow it's national relevancy – the old dogs of the ACC are where it is at.
That's where we stand as we take a look at the games that will matter most for the ACC in 2013. With that, let's just get right down to it. Here are the ten biggest games for the Atlantic Coast Conference this season.
10. Florida State at Pitt (Sept. 2): The importance of this game can't be understated, after all, it is the first ever ACC contest for Paul Chryst's Panthers. Oh, and it happens to be against the reigning champs of FSU. Both of these teams will be breaking in new quarterbacks and there's nothing like putting a new QB's feet to the fire right away to get to know what he is made out of. A slip up by FSU here pretty much ends their hopes on a national level and for Pitt a W could be just the launching point needed to say a rude hello to the ACC as a whole. This should be a fun matchup and one of the biggest of opening weekend.
9. North Carolina at North Carolina State (Nov. 2): These two schools really don't like each other much, that's a given. It also just so happens to be new Wolfpack HC Dave Doeren's first go around in the rivalry. With some of the best players from last season gone on both sides a lot of people wonder if both of these teams will be anything more than hovering around .500 this season – well, cue this matchup as a chance for the winner to vault themselves directly into the conversation to be more than a bit player at the conference level.
8. Syracuse at Northwestern (Sept. 7): If the Orange, who will be without easily their best player from last year, Ryan Nassib, want to be players in their new home a win on the road against a quality Big Ten opponent in Northwestern would sure make that statement. This game also happens to have been one of the craziest games of the entire 2012 season, so maybe, just maybe we'll be in store for more of that this time around. The end result of this game could tell us just about everything we need to know and it'll only be week two of the season, so ya, this is kind of a big deal.
7. Georgia Tech at Miami (Oct. 5): This game pits two of the three co-Coastal Division champions from last season, with the Yellow Jackets repping the division in the championship game thanks to self-imposed penalties by the Hurricanes and North Carolina under NCAA sanctions and a one year postseason ban. These two teams could be competing for division honors with the Tar Heels again this season, so this early season matchup between Tech and Miami has big implications. Miami has done some great work in the recruiting world and Tech looks to improve its defense after firing Al Groh – so expect this one to really tell us all we know about who will be a true division contender nearly out the gate in ACC play.
6. Miami at Florida State (Nov. 2): 10 years ago this game is No. 1 with a bullet – now, well…. Miami isn't exactly Miami and FSU is the same old FSU we've come to expect again. Add in that this is a cross divisional game and you can see why it doesn't mean as much as it once did. However, if the Hurricanes want to make a run to the ACC championship (or at least the division title should the NCAA hammer come down just a few days from this writing) a win against the top dog in the conference sure would help. Seeing this game take off and become what it once was would really help the ACC boost its profile.
5. North Carolina at South Carolina (Aug. 29): The battle of the Carolina's…. Yeehaw! O.k., joking aside we, as college football fans should be excited about this game. One, it's on opening night, two it's not one of these lame neutral site games – being played at Williams-Brice Stadium, and three, these two teams could be division and conference title contenders. Tones are set from the very get go and it's not often we get to see this kind of matchup in the first week of the season. This is also a rivalry that will be played for the first time since 2007, with UNC holding a 34-18-4 edge over the Gamecocks. Winning this game would be huge for the Tar Heels as they're likely to be facing a preseason Top 10 Gamecocks squad. Let the battle of the Carolina's begin!
4. Virginia Tech at Miami (Nov. 9): This game could be massive in the Coastal Division race. Va Tech can't be down long after a disappointing 2012 and they have some very nice parts returning, including QB Logan Thomas and eight returning starters on defense. Expect this early November game to be for all the marbles in the division race if you ask me, so I'd say that alone makes this game huge. For the Hurricanes this is the back end of a brutal two game stretch against rivals FSU and Va Tech. What happens to them the week before this one could have a major effect on the outcome of this game as well. If this game is for the division title that can only be good news for the ACC in terms of actually getting people to care about it's title game on a national scale – something that hasn't really happened in quite awhile.
3. Alabama vs Virginia Tech (Aug. 31): Yes, Va Tech took a step back last year and they have a ton to prove in 2013 to say the least. So, why not start the season making a massive statement by taking down the back-to-back champions, right? O.k., the chances of that happening in the Georgia Dome are as likely as the chances of Tim Tebow starting at QB for the Patriots in 2013 – it ain't happening. However, I have this game high on the list because the Hokies are a name brand nowaday's in college football and if they can at least not pull a Michigan they'll be fine and it could help them the rest of the year if they can at least keep it close.
2. Clemson at South Carolina (Nov. 30): Clemson book ends their season with matchups against two of the front runners for the SEC east title and if they win the first one we could be talking about a team playing for something really special in the battle of the Palmetto State. As if this bitter in-state rivalry (one of the top 3 in the south if you ask me) needed any more importance. If both come in atop their divisions we're also likely looking at at top five matchup and you couldn't ask for anything better to end the month of November (yes that rhymed, and yes it was on purpose). No matter where these two teams are it's always fun to see Dabo and the 'ol ball coach go at it – they are two of the better personalities in the sport after all. Oh, and the football is going to really awesome to see too.
1. Florida State at Clemson (Oct. 19): DUH, as if there was any other game that would top this list. Look, it's this simple – the winner of this one is likely to take the division crown and therefore the conference title. No pressure at all for a game in the middle of the season or anything, right? With Andre Ellington gone at Clemson and E.J. Manuel gone at FSU there will be plenty of intrigue going on ahead of this game. For Clemson this is the biggest hurdle to the conference title (maybe GT plays a role later in the season, but the jury is out on them right now), but for FSU this game could set the tone in a run of three difficult games with NC State and Miami coming up following this one. Win and season is made, lose and season is done. That may be simplistic, but for fanbases that expect conference titles these days it is exactly that on the line in Death Valley.
For more of Andy's musings on all things college football and more follow him on Twitter @andycoppens.