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ACC Looks to Rebound After Week One

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb on the ACC moving forward after a tough opening weekend.

Championships aren’t won on the first weekend of the regular season. But they can potentially be lost.

That’s unfortunate for the ACC, who -- to say the least -- took one on the chin in Week 1. The conference’s top three playoff contenders -- Clemson, North Carolina and Miami -- all lost. Two of them -- Clemson and Miami -- fell to Georgia and Alabama, respectively.

There’s no shame in losing to the top SEC programs. There is plenty of embarrassment, though, in only scoring 10 points against a team that finished below .500 last year. North Carolina did that against Virginia Tech. Louisville also had a poor showing in primetime on Labor Day, giving up 43 points and losing by nearly three touchdowns to a middle-tier SEC program that was without its head coach.

No matter how it’s sliced, the fact is, just one week into the season, the ACC is already on “the outside looking in” in the playoff picture.

For the conference to avoid missing the College Football Playoffs for the first time ever, the ACC must get back on track quickly. It starts with a few non-conference matchups in Week 2.

There’s so much football left to be played that it’s somewhat silly to say a championship can be lost on opening weekend. Everyone knows Clemson’s potential, and if anyone -- other than Alabama -- is going to be given a break for an early-season loss, it’s Dabo Swinney’s Tigers.

Still, with one loss, Clemson has no margin for error. It can’t trip up on a Friday night on the road against Syracuse or lose by a point against Pitt and still make the Final Four as the program has in years past.

No team with two defeats has ever made the College Football Playoff. One more loss for Clemson, and, barring some very unusual circumstances, the Tigers are out.

But even if Clemson runs the table, it’s hard to see where the Tigers are going to get a signature win to cement their playoff resume with one loss. Clemson doesn’t see either North Carolina or Miami during the regular season. The Tigers might see one of those teams in the ACC Championship Game, but neither team looked elite in Week 1 anyway.

The only Power 5 non-conference opponent Clemson has left on its schedule is South Carolina. The Tigers should start rooting for their biggest rival to have a better than expected season so they can play another ranked opponent before December.

The other way Clemson could face a ranked opponent is if an unexpected ACC program emerges as a Top 25 team. Of all the programs in the conference, NC State and Pitt are two of the more likely possibilities to rise above mediocrity. Coincidentally, both NC State and Pitt have key road matchups with Mississippi State and Tennessee this weekend.
Those games are important for those teams but also for the ACC. NC State and Pitt need to win these matchups to bring some respectability to the conference following an awful opening weekend.

Clemson plays NC State in two weeks and Pitt towards the end of October. It won’t erase Week 1, but the Wolfpack and Panthers beating SEC opponents on the road this weekend will help the conference’s playoff chances.

Don’t overlook Virginia hosting Illinois and Syracuse welcoming Rutgers to upstate New York either. While those two Big Ten programs went a combined 5-12 last year, wins for the Cavaliers and Orange in those matchups will help the ACC. At least it says the conference’s third-tiered teams are better than programs of similar calibre in another Power 5 conference.

Syracuse beating Rutgers won’t move the needle like a Pitt win will at Tennessee. Still, it will not help the ACC at all if Syracuse loses.

Of course, the fact that the conference is looking at teams such as Syracuse and Virginia, who went 6-15 combined last season, to help its playoff chances says all one really needs to know about the status of the ACC heading into Week 2 -- it’s in dire straits.

Ironically, the other best thing for the ACC right now is for Georgia to just go on a rampage through its schedule. If that happens, and the Bulldogs beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, Clemson has a path to the College Football Playoff without a signature win.

Then again, that path also likely includes Alabama having already lost before the SEC Championship and the other Power 5 conference champions -- and Notre Dame -- having one loss. It might take those other conference champions having two losses for the ACC to make the playoffs if Clemson has no wins against ranked opponents.

That’s about as narrow a playoff path one will ever see for an elite program after Week 1.