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ACC Football: Top 15 Must-See Games of 2020

Five-time defending ACC champ Clemson will be in the spotlight every game this fall

The 2020 ACC football schedule is nothing if not historic.

 

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the three Power 5 conferences participating in a fall 2020 season recalibrated its schedule. Part of that included adding affiliate member Notre Dame into the fold — the first time the Fighting Irish have been members of a football conference.

 

Certainly, Notre Dame's addition to try and dethrone Clemson is the most prominent storyline, but the ACC is full of fascinating angles in this non-traditional campaign. With new head coaches at Boston College and Florida State, a surprising contender emerging in North Carolina, and several possible dark-horse spoilers up and down the league, the ACC offers plenty of unknowns in 2020 — fitting, given the kind of year this has been.

 

15. Virginia at Clemson, Oct. 3

The 2019 ACC Championship Game runs it back early in the slate. Virginia's surprising campaign rivals 2007 among the program's best in recent memory and can be a building block for Bronco Mendenhall. Stacking up with Clemson is the ultimate goal, whether in the ACC or elsewhere. At the very least, Virginia gets to measure its progress against the best.

 

14. Syracuse at Pittsburgh, Sept. 19

In 2017, Syracuse scored a milestone win in the young tenure of head coach Dino Babers when they stunned defending national champion Clemson. The following year, the Orange broke through for 10 wins and expectations elevated. However, Syracuse fell flat after an early-season blowout loss to Maryland and never regrouped.

 

An early matchup with a promising Pitt could similarly shape the 2020 campaign for Syracuse — and ditto for the Panthers. With Kenny Pickett back behind center and one of the more imposing defensive lines in the conference, which will miss Jaylen Twyman, Pitt could be a dark-horse contender.

 

13. Notre Dame at Wake Forest, Dec. 12*

The bizarre offseason steepens the learning curve earlier in the season, which could be to the benefit of a veteran Wake Forest defense drawing Notre Dame at home in Week 3. Dave Clawson's efforts at Wake are impressive, and he oversees a sneaky threat in 2020 thanks to the experience on defense with the entire front seven returning. Carlos Basham Jr. is a breakout star in the making with a prime opportunity to make his name on a national stage.

*Game was originally scheduled for Sept. 26, but was postponed and then moved to Dec. 12 due to COVID-19 concerns.

 

12. Miami at Clemson, Oct. 10

Pundits and fans alike have spent the better part of a decade and a half wondering when Miami would be back to the standard set by The U of old. The Hurricanes blow into Death Valley seeking the kind of program-defining win against a Clemson team that has grown into the kind of dynasty Howard Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson ran in the 1980s.

 

It's been 10 years since Miami last beat Clemson, though the programs have met just twice in the decade since.

 

11. Virginia Tech at Louisville, Oct. 31

Scott Satterfield's debut season at Louisville turned heads, as the Cardinals picked up the pieces from the disastrous conclusion to the Bobby Petrino reboot to play an exciting brand of football. Louisville may be some significant defensive improvements shy of returning to Atlantic division contention, which it reached in 2016, but the Cardinals are sure to put up points with Micale Cunningham and Javian Hawkins leading the offense.

 

Cunningham and Virginia Tech's Hendon Hooker could be two of the more intriguing quarterbacks in the ACC in 2020. Hooker's late-season emergence righted the ship through a rocky start to 2019.

 

10. Florida State at Miami, Sept. 26

In-state rivals Florida State and Miami have fallen short of historic standards in recent years, evident in the flip-flopping of head coaches: Mike Norvell debuts as the Seminoles' third head coach in five years, while second-year Miami coach Manny Diaz is The U's third in four years. Still, the annual meetings have been entertaining and competitive.

 

In 2020, the rivalry could set the tone for the entire season. Florida State will be getting accustomed to Norvell and his staff after the pandemic-shortened offseason, while Miami integrates talented Houston transfer D'Eriq King at quarterback.

 

9. Clemson at Virginia Tech, Dec. 5

Before Clemson grew into the standard-bearer for the ACC, Virginia Tech carried that banner. Justin Fuente's tenure following legendary Frank Beamer has had its ups and downs. Scoring the Hokies' first win over Clemson since 2007 would be a decided up if Tech can score it.

 

In Virginia Tech's favor, drawing this late in the season might improve the odds of having an audience in Blacksburg. But home crowd or no, Trevor Lawrence & Co. will have to solve one of the most veteran and talented defenses in the conference. During this dynastic era of Clemson football, teams that have challenged the Tigers the most — like North Carolina a season ago — did so with outstanding defensive performances.

 

8. Virginia at Virginia Tech, Dec. 12

Virginia's run to the ACC Championship Game last season culminated in a win for the ages over rival Virginia Tech — the Cavaliers' first victory in the series since 2003. This year's battle for the Commonwealth Cup happens earlier in the season as part of the COVID-19-impacted schedule, marking the first September game between the two since 1987. It also will serve as the Hokies' opener since their originally scheduled Sept. 12 game against NC State was moved to Sept. 26 by the ACC after several Wolfpack players tested positive for COVID-19.

 

Both the Cavaliers and Hokies feature some of the conference's best defensive talent, including Virginia linebackers Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier and Virginia Tech's Rayshard Ashby and Dax Hollfield. This game also marks an initial test for a pair of UVA transfers by way of James Madison — D'Angelo Amos and Adeeb Atariwa. Both defenders helped the Dukes make it to the FCS Championship Game last season.

*Game was originally scheduled for Sept. 19 but was postponed and then moved to Dec. 12 due to COVID-19 concerns.

 

7. North Carolina at Florida State, Oct. 17

North Carolina's promising 2020 season features a number of high-profile road trips. The Tar Heels' visit to Tallahassee is among the first and could be campaign-defining for both Mack Brown's squad and Mike Norvell's. A talented Florida State defensive line with returning starters Marvin Wilson and Janarius Robinson battling in the trenches with a veteran North Carolina offensive line offers an intriguing sub-plot.

 

6. North Carolina at Miami, Dec. 5

Another of North Carolina's arduous road games, the Tar Heels draw Miami in a potential divisional title game one week after a prototypical let-down game. Carolina hosts Notre Dame a week earlier, and the emotional impact of that one could, win or lose, carry into Miami.

 

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, enter 2020 as one of the ACC's most mysterious teams. The program backslid after a promising resurgence in 2017, but Manny Diaz's roster isn't lacking for talent. At this late juncture in the season, the Hurricanes could have put their talent together to flourish — or fallen short of expectations again.

 

5. Notre Dame at Pittsburgh, Oct. 24

There are plenty of metrics, advanced or otherwise, that help one evaluate a college football matchup. When it comes to Pitt football and high-profile home games, however, things like "numbers" and "logic" seemingly go out the window.

 

The Panthers host a traditional rival, Notre Dame, in one of those games that has all the makings of a quintessential Pitt game. You know the kind of game to which we're referring: a contest like last year's wild shootout win over UCF, which ended in the Knights' first regular-season loss in almost three years. A game like the Panthers' epic shocker of Clemson in 2016.

 

4. Clemson at Florida State, Nov. 21

The initial few years of the College Football Playoff featured Clemson and Florida State jockeying for ACC positioning. After the Seminoles represented the conference in the Playoff's first installment, a thrilling Clemson win in Death Valley during the 2015 campaign provided the Tigers a springboard. While Florida State's rebuilt, Clemson has built upward.

 

A win similar to Clemson's in 2015 would be monumental for reestablishing Florida State as a top-tier ACC team.

 

3. North Carolina at Virginia, Oct. 31

Two of the biggest surprises in the ACC a season ago, Virginia won the Coastal en route to an Orange Bowl appearance while North Carolina exceeded most expectations in Mack Brown's return to Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels are trendy picks to win the Coastal in 2020 but will have to get through a talented Cavaliers bunch in Charlottesville.

 

2. Notre Dame at North Carolina, Nov. 27

Sam Howell's return for 2020 has understandably set expectations high at North Carolina. The talented quarterback should have the Heels in the thick of an ACC title race come Thanksgiving weekend for a landmark meeting with Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish's one-year interlude as an ACC member adds plenty of intrigue to the conference, and another contender. Brian Kelly has Playoff-caliber talent that will be tested in the final month of an unprecedented regular season.

 

1. Clemson at Notre Dame, Nov. 7

On paper, these are the two most talented teams in the ACC. Clemson has become a mainstay in the College Football Playoff, reaching the final four in each of the past five seasons and the title game four of those seasons. The Tigers' 2018 national championship included a national semifinal decimation of Notre Dame, Clemson's third straight win in a series that has played just four installments.

 

The first of Clemson's Playoff runs included a dramatic defeat of Notre Dame in gale-force winds and driving wind during the 2015 season. That was the last regular-season meeting between the programs, and the third straight decided by single digits. Meanwhile, this edition marks the first at Notre Dame Stadium in 41 years.

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

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