The ACC may be the defending champion of college football but it has a long way to go before it earns the type of respect its regional rival, the SEC, gets nationally. Some of that can be attributed to the struggles the league has had outside of its conference — especially, against the SEC.
Florida State rolled up a big number on Florida and outlasted Auburn in the BCS title game, however, the rest of the league hasn’t been as fortunate. Clemson has lost five straight to South Carolina. Georgia Tech has lost five straight and 12 out of 13 to Georgia and was beaten by Ole Miss last year in the Music City Bowl. Both North Carolina and Virginia Tech were stomped in season openers against South Carolina and Alabama respectively. Duke lost to Texas A&M in a memorable Chick-fil-A Bowl. Even Vanderbilt has beaten up on the ACC of late, going 4-0 over the last three years against the league.
There is reason for optimism, however, and it’s not just Florida State. Clemson beat Georgia in the season opener last year and then topped Ohio State in the Orange Bowl for its first and only BCS bowl win. Miami did beat Florida early in the year, albeit one of the worst Gator teams in school history. Notre Dame has been added to four schedules every season, offering multiple teams a chance to knock off a quality opponent. And Louisville joins the mix this year with its annual Bluegrass State bout with Kentucky.
The ACC on the whole is getting better, there is no doubt, but key wins over quality non-conference opponents might be the only way to gain national respect. Like most years, there will be plenty of great opportunities for that very thing in 2014:
1. Notre Dame at Florida State (Oct. 18)
Florida State’s toughest regular season test in 2014 may come from the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame has the talent, gets its signal-caller back under center and could be on a roll by mid-October. Few games in the nation will feature two more powerful brands with more at stake than when Brian Kelly brings his team south to Tallahassee. Very few teams have what it takes to challenge the defending champs but Notre Dame is definitely one of them. These two have met seven times with FSU taking five games, including the last two meetings in 2003 and '11.
2. South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 29)
As far as deeply entrenched rivalries and overall importance of the game to the national landscape go, it's hard to argue the Palmetto State season finale won't be one the biggest non-conference games in the league. Carolina and Steve Spurrier are eyeing an SEC East title and possible playoff berth, so a loss to the Tigers for the first time since 2008 would be crippling to those hopes. If the Tigers' offense develops quickly, this could be another top-15 matchup.
3. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 29)
This was a blowout a year ago but Florida expects to be much improved this year and the historic Sunshine State rivalry could hold national championship implications for the Seminoles. Florida may have the best roster of any team Florida State will face in the 2014 regular season so fans should expect a much closer bout this time around — as long as the Gators' coaching staff is still intact by season's end.
4. Clemson at Georgia (Aug. 30)
Last year's meeting was an epic offensive showdown that featured elite playmakers and provided a memorable experience for everyone. This year, Clemson's defense is its strength while Georgia returns nine starters on D. With two new quarterbacks for both teams, expect a sloppier performance from both offenses in the first week of the season — which could be equally as entertaining. Each team has an outside shot at playoff contention so this season-opening meeting is monumental for both teams.
5. Miami at Nebraska (Sept. 20)
From an intrigue standpoint, few non-conference games in college football will feature two more powerful brands than this Week 4 meeting in Lincoln. These two have met in multiple national title situations, including four Orange Bowl and three national title games. The last two meetings were a Miami beatdown in the BCS title game in 2001 and a Nebraska national championship-clinching win in the 1995 Orange Bowl. And, of course, who could forget the 1984 Orange Bowl and the most infamous two-point conversion attempt in college football history.
6. Louisville at Notre Dame (Nov. 22)
Bobby Petrino has a few marquee showdowns on his schedule this fall and the biggest one might be a trip to South Bend in late November. The meeting will mark the first time in history that these two programs have ever met despite being just four hours apart. The matching of offensive wits between Petrino and Brian Kelly will be a thing to behold and must-see TV.
7. Florida State vs. Oklahoma State (Aug. 30, Arlington)
Oklahoma State won the Big 12 title in 2011 and was one drive away from a second conference crown a year ago. However, with massive departures, the Pokes are in rebuilding mode and playing the defending national champs in Week 1 is a recipe for disaster. Still, anytime two big programs get together in the season opener in Jerry’s World it’s something the nation needs to watch.
8. Virginia Tech at Ohio State (Sept. 6)
The Hokies will once again have an elite defense led by well-respected coordinator Bud Foster. This is the reason Virginia Tech is the front-runner to win the Coastal Division and face Florida State in the ACC title game. Ohio State is a top playoff contender and is breaking in a new offensive line, so facing the Hokies' defensive line is a great early measuring stick for Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes will be a clear favorite in this game and a decisive win could give OSU a critical non-conference win over a quality opponent.
9. North Carolina at Notre Dame (Oct.11)
Much like Louisville and Florida State, North Carolina has a shot at a headline-making, non-conference win if it can go into South Bend and pull the upset. The Tar Heels may not have the same talent as the Seminoles or the coaching of the Cardinals, but North Carolina should be fairly competitive in mid-October. The Heels are 2-16 all-time against the Irish but won the last meeting 29-24 in Chapel Hill in 2008.
10. Georgia Tech at Georgia (Nov. 29)
Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate featured one of the most thrilling finishes of 2013 (unfortunately for Tech). The Jackets coughed up a 20-point lead and eventually lost in double overtime. Paul Johnson has one win in six tries against the Dawgs, as Tech has lost 12 of 13 against their in-state rival. A season-ending win over Georgia cannot be undervalued for Johnson.
11. Kentucky at Louisville (Nov. 29)
Mark Stoops is making Kentucky more relevant every day and his team should be at its best by season's end. Bobby Petrino will be wrapping up his first season back in Louisville. With in-state recruiting battles growing more fierce by the day, the Wildcats-Cardinals matchup just gets that much more intriguing.
12. Iowa at Pitt (Sept. 20)
Pitt is going to be one of the most improved teams in the ACC this year and will give Iowa all it can handle at home in Week 4. The Hawkeyes are spying a run at a Big Ten West Division title and Paul Chryst is very familiar with Kirk Ferentz from his time at Wisconsin. This would be a huge win for a team on the rise against a quality foe at home.
Others games to watch:
USC at Boston College (Sept. 13)
Syracuse vs. Notre Dame (Sept. 27, East Rutherford)
Cincinnati at Miami (Oct. 11)
UCLA at Virginia (Aug. 30)