As the college football season draws near, Athlon Sports is making sure fans know exactly when and where to tune in this fall. Here are the ACC's top 40 must-see football games for the 2012 season:
1. Week 4 (Sept. 22): Clemson at Florida State
There are two games inside of the ACC that truly stand above the rest this fall, and since Clemson-Florida State figures to have more fireworks, it gets the nod as the most anticipated game of the year. The Tigers rolled-up 443 yards of offense in the 35-30 win over the Noles in Death Valley last year. Jimbo Fisher and company don't plan on allowing that type of offensive production this time around. Considering the rebuilt Clemson offensive line — and getting the game in Doak Campbell Stadium — FSU should be able to control the line of scrimmage this year. It will fall to Tajh Boyd, who dropped 344 yards and three scoring strikes on FSU last year, to make the key plays if Clemson wants to win. Of course, getting EJ Manuel back under center, who missed last year's game with an injury, helps the Seminoles' chances as well.
2. Week 1 (Sept. 3): Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech
The best current ACC stat? The winner of this game has gone on to win the Coastal Division every year since the conference split into two divisions. So no pressure in Week 1 in primetime on Labor Day night, right? Logan Thomas did his best Cam Newton impersonation in last year's 37-26 Thursday night win in Atlanta, scoring five times in the victory. Bud Foster's defense did just enough to get the win and will have had all summer to prepare for the vaunted Paul Johnson triple option. This game will feature strength on strength as the Hokies should possess one of the nation's elite defenses while the Yellow Jackets return a deep and talented offensive line and backfield. The whole nation will be watching the game that should once again decide one half of the ACC championship equation.
3. Week 11 (Nov. 8): Florida State at Virginia Tech
Should the preseason predictions hold true, this will be a preview of this season's ACC championship game. Virginia Tech is the clear heavy favorite in the Coastal while Florida State gets its primary Atlantic Division test with Clemson at home. The last time these two met, the Hokies out-ran the Noles 44-33 in the 2010 ACC title game. In fact, after three decades of dominance from FSU in the series, Frank Beamer has won two of the last three meetings. These are easily the top two defenses in the league and points will be at a premium for a pair of mammoth quarterbacks — the 6-5, 240 pound Manuel and the 6-6, 260 pound Thomas. Expect heavy hitting and lots of ice packs.
4. Week 6 (Oct. 6): Florida State at NC State
The top sleeper team in the ACC is Tom O'Brien's Wolfpack. They are strong at the point of attack on both offense and defense and have excellent leadership from quarterback Mike Glennon. These two teams match-up extremely well and getting the game at home for NC State could spell upset for Florida State. Manuel will be pressed by one of the nation's top secondaries while the strong Florida State defensive line will force Glennon to be successful down the field. This was no contest last fall in Tallahassee 34-0, but the last time Fisher took his team to Raleigh, the Pack got the best of FSU 28-24.
5. Week 12 (Nov. 17): NC State at Clemson
If the Pack is in fact the top sleeper team in this league, it will have to upset Clemson once again this season. After a 9-1 start, the No. 7-ranked Tigers went north to Raleigh and got embarrassed 37-13. Glennon was able to find success through the air throwing for 253 yards and three touchdowns in the win while the defense made Tajh Boyd look bad. He managed only 238 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. However, expect Clemson OC Chad Morris to point to the lack of a rushing attack last fall — 28 carries for 34 yards —as one of the biggest concerns. Getting the game at home gives Clemson the edge but should NC State defeat FSU in Week 6, this game could become an division championship contest.
6. Week 8 (Oct. 20): Virginia Tech at Clemson
These two played twice last fall and Logan Thomas will readily admit that he didn't get the job done in the two losses. The Clemson defense struggled all season long but somehow managed to stop the burly passer and the explosive Hokie ground game. The 23-3 regular season win was merely a precursor to Clemson's 38-10 dominance in the ACC title game. Thomas and the Hokie defense should be much improved in 2012, so fans can bank on this one being much tighter this time around. This, too, could be a championship game preview.
7. Week 13 (Nov. 24): South Carolina at Clemson
It may not be the most high-profile rivalry and it may not have national implications like many other rivalries, but it is hard to find a yearly battle that possesses as much vitriol as the Tigers-Gamecocks. From 1997 to 2008, Clemson owned the series, winning 10 of the 13 meetings. But the last three years have seen South Carolina stake a major claim to in-state supremacy. None of the games have been close as Carolina has outscored its rival 97-37. Both teams are focused on a conference title in their respective leagues, so the game means little to the actual standings, but don't tell that to the people in the Palmetto State. Or to two teams that could potentially be ranked in the Top 10 by the time they meet.
8. Week 13 (Nov. 24): Florida at Florida State
This rivalry certainly hasn't had the luster it once did back in the late '90s, but there is still plenty on the line when these two powerhouses get together in the regular-season finale. After the Gators won six straight in the series, the Noles have reclaimed Sunshine State supremacy in a big way the last two seasons with two dominating performances. The Gators have scored 14 total points in the last two games and scoring will once again be difficult. Both teams will win with defense this year and this game could feature upwards of half-a-dozen potential first-round NFL defenders. This will be a physical contest — one that Will Muschamp needs to be more competitive.
9. Week 1 (Sept. 1): Clemson vs. Auburn (Atlanta, Ga.)
The first Saturday night of the season in the Georgia Dome has turned into a yearly must-watch contest and these two Tigers won't disappoint. Clemson won the meeting 38-24 last fall while Auburn won the 27-24 thriller en route to its National Championship in 2012. Brian VanGorder should have the Auburn defense much improved, but if Aubie expects to upset Clemson, it will have to get quality quarterback play on offense. This will be a great barometer game for both programs right out of the gate.
10. Week 11 (Nov. 10): Georgia Tech at North Carolina
The Tar Heels cannot win the conference title or play in a bowl game, but Larry Fedora's first team in Chapel Hill should be very good. The offenses will be featured in this contest as both lines will pave the way for powerful rushing attacks. Tevin Washington and Bryn Renner, however, will likely control the outcome as whoever can complete key third-down passes should claim victory. A long Washington scoring strike late in the game last fall gave Tech the 35-28 win. This game will likely determine the top challenger to Virginia Tech in the Coastal — even if the Heels can't play in the title game.
11. Week 9 (Oct. 27): NC State at North Carolina
This in-state battle has been owned by the Wolfpack of late. They have won five straight in the contest and these two should both be excellent teams again in 2012. For NC State, who has eyes on the ACC title game, there could be more than Tar Heel State bragging rights on the line.
12. Week 6 (Oct. 6): Virginia Tech at North Carolina
The Tar Heels could be the top contender to the Hokies this fall and will have a great chance to pull the upset at home in the first week in October, but obviously won't be able to win the league. A very talented UNC rushing attack will go head-to-head with one of the best defenses in the nation.
13. Week 6 (Oct. 6): Georgia Tech at Clemson
The Jackets rushed for 383 yards in the 31-17 home win over the Tigers, giving Clemson their first loss of the year in extremely disappointing fashion. It gave Tech the fifth win in six years over Clemson. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables will have his hands full with the loaded Georgia Tech rushing attack.
14. Week 13 (Nov. 24): Georgia Tech at Georgia
Few games have a better name than the Peach State rivalry. And that both teams are rarely this evenly matched only adds to the game simply known as Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. These two have split the last four meetings and both could be playing for a 10th win by the time they meet in late November.
15. Week 1 (Aug. 31): NC State vs. Tennessee (Atlanta, Ga.)
This will be an excellent barometer game for both programs. If NC State wants to compete in the ACC, a win over Tennessee will send a shot across the bow of Florida State and Clemson. The Vols, and more specifically Derek Dooley, need to get 2012 started well, possibly more than any other SEC team. Two great QBs, Amerson vs. Hunter and the Georgia Dome? What more can you ask for?
16. Week 7 (Oct. 13): Florida State at Miami
It's been a long time since this game means as little as it will in 2012. Obviously, FSU has to win games like this if it expects to win the ACC and stay in the national title hunt. But there is still something exiting about the Tomahawk and "The U" getting together.
17. Week 13 (Nov. 24): Virginia at Virginia Tech
The Commonwealth battle was a dismantling last year when Tech rolled-up a 38-0 win over its in-state rival. Mike London has clearly reestablished the Cavaliers brand within Virginia's borders, much to Beamer's chagrin, but needs to take the next step on the field.
18. Week 3 (Sept. 15): Virginia at Georgia Tech
If London and the Cavs want to see their name mentioned alongside the Hokies for conference honors, it needs to continue winning this particular game — like it did last fall. The 24-21 win was one of the primary indicators that the new coaching staff is getting the job done in Charlottesville.
19. Week 10 (Nov. 1): Virginia Tech at Miami
Key road tests against well-coached teams always poses problems for conference title contenders. This game was much too close for Virginia Tech's liking last fall (38-35) and the Hokies will need to stay focused against the upstart youth of the Hurricanes.
20. Week 12 (Nov. 15): North Carolina at Virginia
The two Techs in the Coastal have won the division every year since the ACC split, so it falls to one of these two to knock them off. No, the Heels can't play for the ACC title but claiming the top record is the next best thing. Everyone knows who won the Pac-12 South last year.
21. Week 5 (Sept. 29): NC State at Miami
See Virginia Tech at Miami game above. Miami will spoil at least one season in 2012 due to Al Golden's coaching.
22. Week 10 (Nov. 3): Virginia at NC State
Two well-coached teams will battle in Raleigh in Week 10. This would be a signature win for the Cavs.
23. Week 7 (Oct. 13): North Carolina at Miami
See Virginia Tech-Miami and NC State-Miami road trips above.
24. Week 6 (Oct. 6): Miami vs. Notre Dame (Chicago, Ill.)
Two huge name brands playing in the nation's second city warrants a mention.
25. Week 5 (Sept. 29): Florida State at USF
The last time these in-staters faced each other, the Bulls claimed a huge moral, recruiting and actual victory over Big Brother.
The Best of the Rest:
26. Week 3 (Sept. 15): North Carolina at Louisville
27. Week 9 (Oct. 25): Clemson at Wake Forest
28. Week 4 (Sept. 22): Miami at Georgia Tech
29. Week 3 (Sept. 15): Wake Forest at Florida State
30. Week 4 (Sept. 22): Virginia at TCU
31. Week 11 (Nov. 10): Miami at Virginia
32. Week 9 (Oct. 27): BYU at Georgia Tech
33. Week 12 (Nov. 17): USF at Miami
34. Week 2 (Sept. 8): Miami at Kansas State
35. Week 12 (Nov. 17): Wake Forest at Notre Dame
36. Week 2 (Sept. 8): Penn State at Virginia
37. Week 11 (Nov. 10): Wake Forest at NC State
38. Week 8 (Oct. 20): Wake Forest at Virginia
39. Week 3 (Sept. 15): Virginia Tech at Pitt
40. Week 3 (Sept. 15): UConn at Maryland
Athlon Sports Must-See TV for 2012:
ACC's Must-See Games of 2012
Big East's Must-See Games of 2012
Big 12's Must-See Games of 2012 (Coming Tues.)
-by Braden Gall
Athlon Sports ACC Predictions and Team Previews: