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ACC Football: Best Games of 2021

Emeka Emezie, NC State Wolfpack Football

NC State's double-overtime upset of Clemson in late September set the tone for what proved to be a wild season in the ACC

One of the few seeming inevitabilities in the unpredictable sport of college football has been Clemson dominating the Atlantic Coast Conference. The emergence of new conference title contenders in 2021 contributed to a wholly wild season, as Pittsburgh and Wake Forest played their way into the ACC Championship Game.

Some outstanding contests on the way to an unpredictable ACC title tilt shaped the 2021 campaign. The conference certainly offered more than just 10 excellent games, but the following contests stand out.

Best Games of 2021 by Conference: ACC I Big 12 I Big Ten I Pac-12 I SEC

10 Best ACC Games of 2021

10. North Carolina 45, Miami 42 – Oct. 16

Lofty preseason expectations for North Carolina were undone from the outset, but the Tar Heels managed to deliver on some of the fall's most memorable games. Among them was a wild shootout win over Miami in which the Hurricanes rallied from multiple double-digit-point deficits before coming up short.

9. Clemson 19, Boston College 13 – Oct. 2

Perennial ACC pace-setter Clemson reaching 10 wins was among this season's more remarkable accomplishments, given how many nail-biters the Tigers survived along the way. Clemson faced down its third loss of the young season as Boston College drove into the red zone in the final minute. A fumble with the Eagles pushing for what would have been a game-winning touchdown may well have saved Clemson's season.

8. Miami 38, Pittsburgh 34 – Oct. 30

Kenny Pickett emerged as one of the nation's best quarterbacks in 2021, and against Miami, he went for more than 500 yards. But the Hurricanes' defense denied the Panthers a fourth-quarter touchdown to preserve the outstanding performance of Miami's own young quarterback, Tyler Van Dyke. Van Dyke passed for 426 yards and three touchdowns in one of Miami's signature wins of a strange yet promising season.

7. Pittsburgh 30, North Carolina 23 (OT) – Nov. 13 

Kenny Pickett passed for 346 yards and three touchdowns, and Pitt jumped to a 23-7 lead over North Carolina. The ACC's preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, Sam Howell, wasn't going to go out easy: He passed for two touchdowns and rushed for a third, and North Carolina battled back from the 16-point deficit to force overtime. Pickett delivered in overtime with his final touchdown to seal the win and keep Pitt in the ACC Coastal race.

6. Syracuse 41, Virginia Tech 36 – Oct. 23

Syracuse and Virginia Tech combined for 31 fourth-quarter points, 21 of which came from the Orange in a wild comeback win. Quarterback Garrett Shrader was electric with 236 passing yards, 174 rushing yards, and three total touchdowns.

5. Wake Forest 40, Syracuse 37 – Oct. 9

Oct. 9 was the single wildest day of the 2021 season; so much so, Wake Forest's win at Syracuse may have flown under the national radar. Even if it didn't command a ton of attention, this was a thriller that showcased two of the ACC's premier offensive players at their best. Running back Sean Tucker went off for three Syracuse rushing touchdowns, while Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman passed for 330 yards, totaled four touchdowns, and hooked up with wide receiver A.T. Perry for all three of his passing scores.

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4. Miami 31, NC State 30 – Oct. 23

The ACC hosted a Heisman finalist in Kenny Pickett, another couple of Heisman-caliber performers in Sam Hartman and Sean Tucker, but one of the most impressive individual games of the 2021 season belonged to Miami's Tyler Van Dyke. He threw for four touchdowns after publicly laying down the gauntlet on the NC State defense.

3. NC State 34, North Carolina 30 – Nov. 26

In-state rivals North Carolina and NC State capped the regular season with a wild, back-and-forth affair. The Wolfpack jumped to a 14-0 lead, only for the Tar Heels to rip off 24 straight points. A pair of North Carolina field goals gave UNC a nine-point edge, and the clock worked against NC State. But when Devin Leary found Emeka Emezie for a 64-yard touchdown with 1:35, it set the stage for an incredible finish.

A recovered onside kick gave NC State another possession, and less than 30 seconds later, Leary and Emezie hooked up again on one of the best catches of the season. An interception of Sam Howell as the Heels drove into Pack territory on the subsequent possession sealed the win.

2. North Carolina 58, Wake Forest 55 – Nov. 6

Tons of offense does not necessarily make for a great game. But North Carolina-Wake Forest was a truly excellent contest featuring the nation's best quarterbacks making plays, an electrifying showing from a running back, and a fourth-quarter comeback.

Sam Hartman went off for seven total touchdowns — five passing and two rushing — but Ty Chandler's four rushing scores and 243 yards of total offense outshined the Demon Deacons and handed them their first loss of the season.

1. NC State 27, Clemson 21 (2OT) – Sept. 25

As we've started re-thinking sports in the last few decades, it's understood that every outcome has a logical explanation. Still, there are occurrences that defy logic almost as if they are cosmic. NC State football's curse when playing powerhouse opponents was one.

"Was" is emphasized here, because the Wolfpack's incredible, overtime win over Clemson was so remarkable, head coach Dave Doeren acknowledged the curse in his postgame press conference. 

This defensive struggle had the makings of a typical heartbreaker, including a pair of late-game missed field goals that could have understandably deflated NC State in overtime. But Devin Leary's resilience and four touchdown passes — two in the overtime periods — and a stout defensive effort scored the win in the ACC's best game of 2021.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break