ACC Swing Games
By Matt Smith
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While every game is important, a single Saturday can often change the course of a team’s season.
There’s always that one game that a team can point do that made or broke its season. Last year, North Carolina had a chance to contend for the Coastal title, but was embarrassed at home by Miami (FL) and finished 7-5. On the other hand, Wake Forest overcame a heartbreaking loss in its season opener to Syracuse to upset N.C. State the following week and spark a surprising bowl season. Here is a look at each ACC team’s 2012 swing game that could make the difference between a good season and a bad season.
Duke – Sept. 29 at Wake Forest
Bowl hopes for the Blue Devils were dashed last season with a one-point loss to the Demon Deacons in Durham. They’ll get a chance to avenge that loss in their ACC opener in Winston-Salem. Duke should start out 3-1, but with another loss to Wake Forest, you can forget about the postseason thanks to a second half that includes consecutive games with Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Florida State and Clemson. With a win, the Blue Devils’ first bowl game in almost 20 years becomes realistic.
Georgia Tech – Sept. 22 vs. Miami (FL)
Yes, stealing the season opener in Blacksburg would be nice, but the Yellow Jackets can recover from a loss to Virginia Tech and still contend in the Coastal Division. Georgia Tech has been surprisingly awful against the Hurricanes the past three years, losing all three games by at least two touchdowns. With another loss to Miami, division title hopes could be over before October, and the Jackets will be left to scramble for a bowl bid against a schedule that includes trips to Clemson, Georgia and North Carolina.
Miami (FL) – Oct. 13 vs. North Carolina
The Hurricanes roster was gutted after the 2011 season, with the secondary the only position that has significant experience. They’ll need some time to gel, but the first half of the season has visits to Kansas State and Georgia Tech and a de facto away game with Notre Dame in Chicago. Miami will likely be at a crossroads when the Tar Heels come to Sun Life Stadium. A win could propel a second-half run in the Coastal Division, while a loss could send the ‘Canes spiraling toward its first losing season since 2007.
North Carolina – Oct. 27 vs. N.C. State
Unfortunately, in a year where the Coastal Division is up for grabs, the Tar Heels are ineligible for the title. They can still have a successful first season under Larry Fedora, however. That starts with ending a curious five-game losing streak to the rival Wolfpack. A week after playing Duke, North Carolina should be relatively fresh for its second straight in-state foe. With no bowl game to look forward to, another loss to N.C. State could crush the spirit of UNC heading into November.
Virginia – Oct. 20 vs. Wake Forest
The Cavaliers are likely to slip back a little this season after losing almost its entire starting defense, but there’s no excuse for not at least getting back to a bowl game. A very light October is sandwiched in between difficult September and November slates. With a trip to Duke and a visit from Maryland preceding the game against the Deacons, Virginia needs to sweep its three October games. The Wahoos could be underdogs in all four November games, so it would behoove them to wrap up a bowl bid in late October.
Virginia Tech – Sept. 3 vs. Georgia Tech
The Hokies can’t afford to dig themselves an early hole in the Coastal Division race. The schedule does not allow them to cruise through the second half of the season like they did last year after an early loss to Clemson. Having time to prepare for the Yellow Jackets offense is always a plus, and Virginia Tech gets all of August to do so this year. Anything short of a division title is considered a failure in Blacksburg. A loss in the opener will make achieving that a difficult task.
Boston College – Sept. 1 vs. Miami (FL)
Like Virginia Tech, the Eagles also have to start out quickly this fall. The non-conference schedule is challenging with games against Northwestern and Notre Dame, and Boston College draws Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech form the Coastal Division in addition to the Hurricanes. Frank Spaziani is likely gone if the Eagles don’t reach a bowl game. Getting to the postseason with a loss to Miami at home seems unlikely. The Hurricanes have a ton of starters to replace, making this a winnable game for the Eagles.
Clemson – Sept. 22 at Florida State
It’s likely a two-horse race in the Atlantic Division, and the heavyweights will meet in September for the second straight season. Of the two teams, Clemson can most afford a loss. Its other road games are Boston College, Duke and Wake Forest, which is as good as you can ask for. However, asking Clemson to beat all the teams it’s supposed to beat is like asking Dabo Swinney to abstain from caffeine. Getting a win in Tallahassee allows for the annual slip-up without costing the Tigers the division title.
Florida State – Sept. 22 vs. Clemson
No, the Atlantic Division won’t be locked up in late September, but it’s going to be tough for the Seminoles to leapfrog Clemson with a head-to-head loss. Road trips to Miami (FL), N.C. State and Virginia Tech lie ahead. The home schedule is extremely blah, so expect a loud crowd in Doak Campbell Stadium for the only notable game there prior to the finale with Florida. It’s time for the ‘Noles to win a big game. With two FCS teams and Wake Forest leading up to the game, it has to come here.
Maryland – Oct. 6 vs. Wake Forest
Nothing has gone right in College Park in the first 16 months of the Randy Edsall era, and it’s still a bit cloudy as to when that will turn around. A 2-2 start seems likely prior to conference play. The Terps then get a week off before Wake Forest comes to Capital One Field. The program needs something, anything, to get its confidence back, and even a home win against the Deacons would do that. A bowl game seems like a bit of a stretch this season, but a strong start to conference play should help Maryland head back in the right direction.
N.C. State – Oct. 6 vs. Florida State
Are the Wolfpack a legitimate threat to Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic Division? Frankly, I’m not sure, and I don’t think anyone is. Tom O’Brien teams are notorious for slow starts and fast finishes, but a division title requires consistency throughout the season. The schedule should allow for another strong finish, but the Wolfpack must survive a difficult mid-season stretch. They upset the Seminoles two years ago in Raleigh, and O’Brien is always good for one upset every season. It must come here if the program is going to take the next step to the elite of the ACC.
Wake Forest – Sept. 8 vs. North Carolina
Just like a year ago, a Week 2 home game against an in-state foe gives the Deacons a chance to prove their legitimacy. They did it last year with an upset of N.C. State, and need to do so again this season when the Tar Heels come to BB&T Field. The late September and early October schedule is light, so Wake Forest needs to get most of its wins early before facing Clemson, N.C. State, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt late in the season. While the Deacons offensive line must be almost completely rebuilt, North Carolina will still be adjusting to new systems in September.