Baker’s Dozen Most Important ACC Games
By Jacob Shoor
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The great problem for the reputation of ACC football is that it plays the SEC more than any other conference.
ACC football has the purgatorial task of sharing three states with the SEC, in each case the SEC having the state's flagship school. A total of eight SEC schools either share their state with the ACC or are in a state that borders an ACC state. That overlapping means that with the past seven or eight years, when the ACC has terribly underachieved while the SEC has had the best run of any conference in college football history, casual fans and the terminally stupid have begun to assume that ACC football is hopeless.
But sports domination runs in cycles, with certain limitations. The SEC is not going far down any time soon because the south is overloaded with talent and SEC admissions standards mean SEC schools - save Vandy - can admit dozens of high quality players each year who have no chance to get admitted to Notre Dame or BC or Stanford. Though the SEC is not going to take a step down, the ACC is going to step up as the cycle moves.
The great problem for the reputation of ACC football is that it plays the SEC more than any other conference. That also is the great opportunity, because beating SEC teams should mean the league's reputation rises.
The following are the most important games for the ACC in 2012. As the ACC must improve its reputation and can do that only by defeating non-ACC teams, all games ranked pit an ACC team versus a non-conference foe.
1. Florida State versus Florida (24 Nov.). FSU is a huge university with admissions standards that mirror the SEC. There is enough talent living within a three hour drive from Tallahassee to stock four Top Ten teams - and that does not take into account all the Miami area talent. There simply is no excuse - save for a string of major injuries - for FSU ever to lose more than two ACC games and three games total.
As the Sunshine State is filled with talent and college football TV fans, the more that FSU fails to hold its own against Florida, the more that ACC football is held down.
Key question: Can Jimbo Fisher afford to lose to his old friend Will Muschamp after having failed to deliver much so far in his Seminole tenure?
2. Georgia Tech @ Georgia (24 Nov.). The Peach State production of football talent would be far better recognized if it did not border FL. The talent and the size of its TV markets make GA easily the 2nd most important football state with an ACC school. The basic default for GA talent and college football TV fans is the SEC, and that can never change until GT stops getting punked by UGA.
Key question: How long can GT afford to keep Paul Johnson if he cannot beat the Bulldogs close to 50% of the time?
3. Clemson versus South Carolina (24 Nov.). Historically, Clemson has owned SoCar, but Steve Spurrier has, at least briefly, altered that. Quite simply, Clemson failing to dominate SoCar is almost as bad for the reputation of ACC football as FSU failing to at least split evenly with UF and GT being dominated by UGA.
Key question: Is Dabo Swinney growing as a head coach, which is necessary for Clemson to finish its seasons strong and not underachieve, or will he remain little more than a glorified Recruiting Coordinator?
4. Clemson versus Auburn in Atlanta (1 Sept.). Auburn fans can still smell the national championship that Cam Newton brought their way. And they will want to beat Clemson almost as badly as they want to beat any SEC team not named Bama because Dabo is a former Crimson Tide player.
On the flip side, a season opening Clemson loss to an SEC team against which it recruits every year will cast a stormy shadow over the entire season, further persuading general fans that ACC football is barely worth noticing.
Key question: After last's year's losses to SoCar and to WVU in the Orange Bowl, can Dabo afford to lose to Auburn? Eventually, such losses will harm his ability to recruit.
5. NCSU versus Tennessee in Atlanta (31 Aug.). Tennessee has been down, with Derek Dooley on a seat getting hotter by the day. If not for beating UNC five consecutive times, Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien also would have a hot seat. A Wolfpack win over an SEC school with a fairly recent national championship and a 100,000 seat stadium probably sets up a bowl season and improved recruiting for a couple of years. A Wolfpack loss to an SEC team most expect to be lucky to finish 3rd in the East will stoke the embers underneath TOB's hot seat.
Key question: With no more Butch Davis and overrated DC Everett Withers for O'Brien to kick around, how much patience will NCSU fans have with failure to beat a down SEC team coached by a UVA alum?
6. Wake Forest at Notre Dame (17 Nov.). Notre Dame is the biggest name in college football, even two decades after its last legitimate national championship contender. Jim Grobe may be the best coach in the ACC. A Deacons win over such a program late in the season would do wonders for the ACC's reputation - unless Notre Dame has a losing season.
Key question: How hot will ND coach Brian Kelly's seat be if he loses to Wake, the smallest school in a BCS AQ conference, one with less football history all time than ND has even over the past 20 years?
7. Miami versus Notre Dame in Chicago (6 Oct.). If Miami had not been gutted by the weakness of the end of Larry Coker's tenure followed by the incompetence of Randy Shannon, this game would be much higher on the list. It was an important game for both programs even before the media proclaimed Catholics VS. Convicts, and it is good to see it played once again.
Miami fans have no choice but to be forgiving of Al Golden's failures to win big games, because even if Miami does not get hit as hard as SoCal was by the NCAA, it will take another year or two to get the Canes back on track.
Key question: How forgiving would Irish fans be of Kelly should his team lose to a short-handed Canes team playing under a cloud of sanctions?
8. Wake Forest versus Vanderbilt (24 Nov.). The fourth of the ACC-SEC season ending games now carries some importance because Vandy has gone bowling and looks to have enough talent to be a bowl contender for years. The overall strength of a conference is seen not merely in the successes of its most prominent programs but also in its smallest schools with the least football history.
Key question: If Wake closes the season with wins over ND and Vandy, will the sports media take notice, seeing it as a positive for the ACC?
9. Miami at Kansas State (8 Sept.). Bill Snyder has come out of retirement to rebuild what his successor Ron Prince made mediocre overnight and kept that way for three years. This Wildcats team should finish anywhere from 2nd to 4th in the Big 12. Miami should be between the 6th and the 8th best team in the ACC.
Key question: If K-State beats Miami, will the media report it as proof that the ACC is weak, as if this is the Miami team of 2001?
10. Maryland @ WVU (22 Sept.). The Mountaineers, who could get admitted to neither the ACC nor the SEC, are projected by many to finish 2nd in the Big 12. Maryland is coming off a disastrous season that increased the denunciations for firing Ralph Friedgen only to ignore Mike Leach and hire Randy Edsall. WVU will try to run up the score, if only to rise in the polls. Edsall desperately needs a big win.
Key Questions: Will WVU be looking ahead to its first Big 12 game the next week against Baylor? Will Maryland be emotionally drained after playing Edsall's former team UConn the week before meeting WVU?
11. BC versus Notre Dame (10 Nov.). The Catholic Holy War only began in 1975, but because ND and BC are the only two Catholic schools left playing major college football, the rivalry has much greater meaning than its history suggests. BC has seen a definite step backwards in recruiting under Frank Spaziani, which bodes ill for the future.
Key question: What are the odds that the coach who loses this game loses his job?
12. UVA versus Penn State (8 Sept.). This is the first season that Penn State has not had Joe Paterno on the sidelines since 1950. Though several players have already left, this should be the most experienced and talented Nittany Lions team until at least 2017. It has nothing to lose and faces no pressure. But the Penn State football history means this is a big game for the near future of UVA football. As Penn State historically has recruited heavily and well in VA, MD, PA, NY, and NJ, and with the additions of Pitt and Syracuse to the conference, the latter three states now are part of the ACC's recruiting home base. The decline of Penn State from the long term NCAA sanctions should make it easier for ACC schools to recruit the northeast.
That process can be seen already in LB/H-Back recruit Zach Bradshaw of Damascus, MD. Bradshaw originally committed to Penn State and also held offers from Arizona, BC, Duke, GT, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, NCSU, Northwestern, Purdue, SoCar, Wake Forest, and WVU. He de-committed from Penn State and is now committed to UVA.
Key question: Can Mike London keep the Wahoos from looking forward the next week to their ACC opener against GT?
13. UNC @ Louisville (15 Sept). UNC cannot go to a bowl this year and is learning an entirely new system on both sides of the ball, with a number of players recruited for the old systems who do not naturally fit into the new. Even so, UNC could notch a winning season. Louisville is the nearly prohibitive favorite to win the Big East, and Charlie Strong is a strong recruiter who notched bowl appearances his first two seasons as head coach.
Key question: In terms of what he accomplishes in Chapel Hill, will Fedora prove to be more like his predecessor Butch Davis or his advisor and champion Mack Brown?