In his two years as Florida State’s starting quarterback, Jameis Winston’s exploits (both on and off the field) created a renewed interest in the ACC, one arguably not seen since the Seminoles took down Michael Vick and Virginia Tech to win the national title in 1999. Sure, the ACC has always been a solid conference, consistently producing 10-plus-win teams and star players a la Calvin Johnson, Tajh Boyd, Russell Wilson, Giovani Bernard, et al.
Unfortunately, with the exception of the 2013 season, the ACC hasn’t produced the same results year-to-year as the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. However, with the likes of Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech in the conference, there will be no shortage of compelling matchups involving ACC teams anytime soon. With that, here are the ACC’s five most intriguing non-conference matchups for the 2015 season.
1. Virginia Tech vs. Ohio State, Sept. 7 (Monday)
There was no way this matchup couldn’t top this list. Ohio State is the defending national champions and return 14 starters, including an enviable duo at quarterback (J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones), an 1,800-yard rusher and potential Heisman candidate at running back (Ezekiel Elliott), two very reliable receivers (Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall) and the majority of a defense (anchored by All-American Joey Bosa) that ranked 26th in points allowed in 2014. The Buckeyes are so deep and talented that former QB Braxton Miller has made the shift to WR.
Virginia Tech on the other hand is a team searching for an identity on offense. The Hokies couldn’t consistently run or throw last season, ranking 77th and 89th nationally in rushing and passing offense, respectively. Quarterback Michael Brewer showed flashes last season (345 yards, 2 TDs vs. Boston College), but was far too inconsistent, throwing almost as many picks (16) as touchdowns (18). Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips are a productive pair at WR, but with both averaging less than 13 yards per catch, they’re rarely going to burn opposing DBs.
However, for all of the uncertainty that plagues the offense, Virginia Tech’s defense is the polar opposite. Led by ultra-disruptive defensive ends Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem (18.5 combined sacks in 2014) and All-American corner Kendall Fuller, Bud Foster’s boys are arguably the best unit in the ACC, and could single-handedly make this game interesting. Oh, and in case you forgot, the Hokies just happen to be the last team to defeat the Buckeyes, knocking them off in one of 2014’s biggest upsets, 35-21 in Columbus last September. Despite winning a national championship, you can bet the Buckeyes will still be sore and hungry for revenge after the Hokies gave them their only blemish on an otherwise-flawless 2014 resume.
2. Clemson vs. Notre Dame, Oct. 3
If you like offense, this game has the potential to be a real treat. Both teams scored in bunches last season (Clemson with 30.8 ppg, Notre Dame 32.8), and could easily match or surpass that type of point production in 2015. Deshaun Watson and Malik Zaire are both dual-threat talents and each has a wealth of talented weapons to throw the ball to. For the Fighting Irish, Will Fuller (76 rec., 1,094 yds., 15 TD in 2014) leads the way, while the Tigers feature the potent duo of Mike Williams (57-1,003-6) and Artavis Scott (76-965-8).
This matchup also features two coaches who definitely know how to win ball games. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly both have a career winning percentage of over .700. Despite this, both Swinney and Kelly have somewhat underachieved. During the BCS era, even with wildly talented teams, the two went a combined 1-4 in BCS bowls (well, technically 1-3 since Kelly left Cincinnati for Notre Dame prior to the 2009 Sugar Bowl). Kelly did manage to get the Irish over the hump in 2012, but they were crushed by Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.
Both coaches have potent offenses and solid defenses at their disposal this season; could this be the year one of them breaks through and wins it all? With both teams dark-horse candidates to crack the College Football Playoff this season, a win here could be a critical victory on the quest to cracking the bracket. A loss, on the other hand, definitely puts a dent in that team’s national title aspirations.
3. Louisville vs. Auburn, Sept. 5 (Atlanta)
On paper, this may not seem like much of a game. Auburn is one of several early favorites to crack the College Football Playoff, and potentially compete for a national title. While Will Muschamp flamed out as a head coach at Florida, he was a hell of a defensive coordinator in his previous stop at Auburn, and then at Texas. So, when Auburn hired him shortly after Florida sent him packing, you knew a defense that returns eight starters was definitely going to be on the fast-track to improvement. Throw in arguably the top offensive head coach in the college ranks in Gus Malzahn, ready-for-the-spotlight stud QB Jeremy Johnson, and home-run threat wideout D’haquille Williams, and you can’t fault folks for being so high on these Tigers.
Louisville on the other hand, faces much more uncertainty. Reggie Bonnafon has only barely separated himself from the rest of the quarterback candidates. Even if he holds onto the starter’s spot, who does he play catch with? James Quick should be that guy, but he’s struggled with drops and inconsistency while trying to live up to the hype of a 4-star recruit out of high school. Brandon Radcliff is a heck of a back, but if Bonnafon (or whoever else) can’t throw the ball downfield, opposing defenses are sure to stack the box to shut Radcliff down. That, coupled with an O-line that only returns three starters, may force the Cardinals to rely on their defense to be successful, until the offense comes around.
That being said, this defense was one of the nation’s best in 2014, allowing 21.8 points. They should be just as ferocious in 2015 with six returning starters, led by DE Sheldon Rankins (8 sacks in 2014), and former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Devonte Fields (10 sacks as a freshman at TCU in 2012). With such a potent defensive unit, Louisville could definitely send Auburn home with a loss if the Tigers choose to overlook the Cardinals.
What makes this game even more intriguing is the implications that the final outcome could have for each squad. For Auburn, a team with national title hopes, a loss to a projected middle-of-the-pack ACC squad could potentially be disastrous, while a win would hardly be impressive to the Playoff committee. For Louisville, a loss would be disappointing, yes, but a win over a potential national championship contender early in the season would be a major confidence boost, setting them up for a run at the ACC Atlantic Division title.
4. North Carolina vs. South Carolina, Sept. 3 (Thursday, Charlotte, N.C.)
What better way to kick off the 2015 season than with a border battle between the flagship universities of the Tar Heel State and the Palmetto State? Unfortunately, both programs have been spinning their wheels the past few seasons; North Carolina has dropped from 8-4 in Larry Fedora’s first season (2012) to 6-7 last season. South Carolina slipped from 11-2, a Capital One Bowl win, and a No. 4 final ranking in 2013 to just 7-6 last season.
Strangely enough, it’s this downward trend that adds so much intrigue to this game, as both teams will be desperate to start 2015 on a high note. Both teams were eerily similar statistically speaking last season. Neither had any real issue scoring — North Carolina put up a solid 33.2 points per game, while South Carolina posted 32.6. The problem was, that neither team could stop anyone either. The Gamecocks finished 92nd in the nation in total defense, allowing 432.7 yards per game. As bad as the Gamecocks were on defense, the Tar Heels were downright embarrassing, finishing 117th (out of 125 FBS teams) in the nation, allowing a ridiculous 497.8 yards per game. Yes, you read that correctly; nearly 500 yards against per game.
Both teams made changes in the offseason to remedy their defensive woes; North Carolina hired former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator. Chizik had major success as a DC in the past; at Auburn in 2004, his defense led the nation in scoring defense, giving up a minuscule 11.3 points per game. As co-defensive coordinator at Texas in 2005-06, the Longhorns only gave up 16.4 points per game en route to a national championship.
South Carolina reached out and hired former Steve Spurrier assistant Jon Hoke to help the Gamecocks’ defense. Hoke worked with Spurrier at Florida, and most recently was the defensive backs coach for the Chicago Bears. Led by Hoke, the Bears’ picked off 43 passes from 2012-13. With these hires, both defenses should be improved in 2015. But, the bread and butter of both teams is offense, and this is where North Carolina should have a major edge. South Carolina must replace QB Dylan Thompson and RB Mike Davis. Connor Mitch was a stud quarterback in high school, but he attempted just six passes in 2014 (less than WR Pharoh Cooper). Conversely, the Tar Heels return nearly their entire offense, including the cherry on top, all-world QB Marquise Williams. Yes, it’s only the first game of the season, but a win here should provide a major confidence boost for two programs desperate to start off on the right foot.
5. Virginia vs. Boise State, Sept. 25 (Friday)
After three consecutive losing seasons, 2015 is quite possibly a do-or-die affair for Virginia head coach Mike London. Sure, the Cavaliers improved from 2-10 in 2013 to 5-7 last season, but with a brutal non-conference slate on tap, things aren’t exactly looking rosy for London this fall. However, the tough opening month could be a blessing in disguise for London and the Cavaliers, as it affords ample opportunities for potentially job-saving wins.
Arguably the most winnable of those non-conference matchups will take place towards the end of September, when Boise State rolls into Charlottesville. Does Virginia have a chance? Sure, simply based on the fact that no opponent is unbeatable. To be fair, though, the Cavs’ chances for a win don’t appear to be that great. Boise State was a ridiculously young team last season with a new head coach, and still finished the season with a 12-2 record, a win in the Fiesta Bowl, and a No. 16 final national ranking.
The Broncos have a few question marks, namely at quarterback and running back. Ryan Finley will look to successfully replace Grant Hedrick under center. While Finley didn’t exactly set the world on fire last season in limited opportunities (12-for-27, 2 TD, 1 INT), he should be just fine, after spending a season learning the ropes from head coach Bryan Harsin. After all, Harsin was the offensive coordinator that helped guide QB Kellen Moore, unquestionably the greatest player in Broncos history. The Broncos also must replace All-American RB Jay Ajayi, who was an absolute terror for opposing defenses last season (1,823 yards rushing, 28 TD). The Broncos don’t have a clear-cut replacement and will most likely utilize a committee approach in 2015. That being said, Boise State is a veritable running back factory, and it shouldn’t be too long before Ajayi’s replacement emerges.
On the other side, Boise State’s defense returns eight starters, including four all-Mountain West performers. With an offense that ranked 88th in scoring last season, if the Cavaliers have any hope of taking down the Broncos, they will probably have to do most of the work on the defensive side of the ball.
Virginia has lost a ton of defensive talent last year (NFL Draft picks Henry Coley, Eli Harold and Max Valles combined for 24 sacks in 2014); however, the cupboard is not bare. Safety Quin Blanding was a Freshman All-American in 2014, and led the Cavs in tackles (123). DE Mike Moore and DT David Dean also return as the key pieces up front from a unit that finished 18th against the run last season. While the D won’t measure up to last year’s, it should have enough depth to give Boise State’s offense fits. If the offense can find any sort of pulse, and the defense can force Boise State’s unproven playmakers into miscues, Virginia could sneak away with a signature win, and perhaps, even just for a week, make the head coach’s seat a little cooler.
— Written by Andrew Bursey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network.