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Ranking the ACC's Toughest College Football Schedules in 2016

Dalvin Cook

Dalvin Cook

When taking a peek at the ACC schedules for the coming season, one has to take into account just how loaded teams like Clemson and Florida State are.

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Therefore, the teams in the Atlantic division are naturally going to have a bit of a tougher slate by virtue of having to play both top-10-caliber squads.

Related: ACC 2016 Spring Football Preview and Power Rankings

Looking specifically at those two programs, each has put forth the type of gauntlet that should impress College Football Playoff Committee members.

Teams like Louisville and North Carolina are also expected to be in the top 25 to open the season, and games against SEC schools and Notre Dame are all over the place, too.

In other words, with everything being relative to where each program stands, there isn’t much in the way of an easy schedule in the bunch. Here is how the ACC teams’ slates break down from most difficult to easiest.

* - neutral site

1. Florida State

Non-Con: Ole Miss*, Charleston Southern, South Florida, Florida

Atlantic Home: Wake Forest, Clemson, Boston College

Atlantic Road: Louisville, NC State, Syracuse

Crossover: North Carolina, at Miami

The Seminoles open with what is sure to be at least a top-15 team with an explosive offense in Ole Miss, then don’t take on a Power Five opponent at home until the first weekend of October, which happens to be against 2015 Coastal Division champion, North Carolina. Things settle down a bit in November, but finish with a Florida team that even at its lowest point has a roster littered with NFL talent. The only solace is that the toughest opponent on the schedule, Clemson, has to come to Doak Campbell Stadium.

2. Clemson

Non-Con: at Auburn, Troy, South Carolina State, South Carolina

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Atlantic Home: Louisville, NC State, Syracuse

Atlantic Road: Boston College, Florida State, Wake Forest

Crossover: at Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh

Auburn is a bit of a wild card to begin with, and the fact that it’s at Jordan-Hare makes it even trickier. Another potential pitfall is the Thursday night road game at Georgia Tech, both because every Thursday night road game breeds upsets and the Yellow Jackets’ offense isn’t easy to prep for on a short week. Louisville has to come to Death Valley before things become more manageable. A carefully placed bye week offsets the fact that the Tigers travel to Tallahassee this season, after which Clemson should be heavily favored in every game on the schedule.

3. Pittsburgh

Non-Con: Villanova, Penn State, at Oklahoma State, Marshall

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Coastal Home: Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Duke

Coastal Road: North Carolina, Virginia, Miami

Crossover: at Clemson, Syracuse

After what should be a relative layup against Villanova to start the season, September is brutal, with a home date against Penn State and road trips to Oklahoma State and North Carolina – both of whom could be ranked – finishing off the month. October is a little more manageable, but the Panthers drew Clemson as one of their crossovers and it’s in Death Valley. A road trip to Miami and home game against Duke make the final month even tougher, as bowl eligibility may come down to the home game with Syracuse.

4. North Carolina

Non-Con: Georgia*, at Illinois, James Madison, The Citadel

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Coastal Home: Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech

Coastal Road: Miami, Duke, Virginia

Crossover: at Florida State, NC State

This schedule is frontloaded with a very tough first two months, and the back end isn’t exactly a cakewalk, either. The quasi-neutral site test with Georgia to start the year will be followed with a road trip to a Power Five conference team, albeit a one in rebuilding mode, in Illinois out of the Big Ten. October has road trips down south to both Florida State and Miami. The Tar Heels should be able to survive that stretch to the point where they are still in the hunt to defend their Coastal title, although back-to-back games with Georgia Tech and Duke to start November won’t make that easy.

5. Louisville

Non-Con: Charlotte, at Marshall, at Houston, Kentucky

Atlantic Home: Florida State, NC State, Wake Forest

Atlantic Road: Syracuse, Clemson, Boston College

Crossover: Duke, at Virginia

By all expectations, the Cardinals should be 2-0 by the time the Seminoles come to Papa John’s Stadium, but getting both Florida State then traveling to Clemson two weeks later doesn’t make things easy. Duke is a tougher crossover game than it used to be, and even the trip to Marshall can be a bit of a trap game. Although Houston isn’t in a Power Five conference, the Cougars announced themselves as a player on the national scene last year with a win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl and will likely be favored on the second-to-last game on the schedule.

6. Georgia Tech

Non-Con: Mercer, Vanderbilt, Georgia Southern, at Georgia

Coastal Home: Miami, Duke, Virginia

Coastal Road: Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Virginia Tech

Crossover: Boston College*, Clemson

That opener, as stated earlier, can throw everything out of whack by virtue of its cross-Atlantic (Ocean) nature, so the Yellow Jackets must work against that. They drew the short end of the stick with a crossover game against Clemson, but having it at home on a Thursday night is highly beneficial. November is brutal, with three road games, including trips to last year’s Coastal champion and a Georgia team that always has talent everywhere.

7. NC State

Non-Con: William & Mary, at East Carolina, Old Dominion, Notre Dame

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Atlantic Home: Wake Forest, Boston College, Florida State

Atlantic Road: Clemson, Louisville, Syracuse

Crossover: Miami, at North Carolina

Everything is fine and dandy the first month of the season, as the Wolfpack don’t leave the state of North Carolina until mid-October, although they’ll likely be an underdog when Notre Dame comes to town. After that, look out. Road games to Clemson and Louisville could bring this team back to earth fast, and the late crossover games with Miami and North Carolina present problems as well. It’s only of minor consolation that Florida State comes to Raleigh, as the Seminoles would be favored if the game were played on the moon.

8. Virginia Tech

Non-Con: Liberty, Tennessee*, East Carolina, at Notre Dame

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Coastal Home: Miami, Georgia Tech, Virginia

Coastal Road: North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Duke

Crossover: Boston College, at Syracuse

There are some fortunate bounces here, particularly drawing Boston College and Syracuse from the Atlantic, completely missing the upper half of that division. However, the non-conference slate features a showdown at Bristol Motor Speedway with Tennessee, which will likely be the favorite to win the SEC East, and a late trip to South Bend to face what should be another stout Notre Dame team. Other than that, the biggest challenge should come from the trip to North Carolina, but this is a fairly manageable slate for Justin Fuente in his first year in Blacksburg.

9. Miami

Non-Con: Florida A&M, Florida Atlantic, at Appalachian State, at Notre Dame

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Coastal Home: North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Duke

Coastal Road: Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Virginia

Crossover: Florida State, at NC State

September is an absolute cakewalk, easing coach Mark Richt into his first year on the job. October is a much different story, though, with three road games, highlighted by a trip to South Bend, and two home games against rival Florida State and a North Carolina team that returns a boatload. November calms down some, but finishing up with a trip to NC State and a home date against Duke is more difficult that it would have been a few years ago.

10. Syracuse

Non-Con: Colgate, South Florida, at Connecticut, Notre Dame*

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Atlantic Home: Louisville, NC State, Florida State

Atlantic Road: Wake Forest, Boston College, Clemson

Crossover: Virginia Tech, at Pittsburgh

This is a program that is in rebuilding mode, and outside of the season opener against Colgate in the Dome, there’s not a lot of automatic wins here. Louisville will likely be a huge favorite, and South Florida and UConn, while not powerhouses, were both bowl teams in 2015. Notre Dame also is a likely defeat, and the rest of the home games are Virginia Tech, NC State and Florida State, all of whom are likely going to be favored, as well. This could be a better team in Dino Babers’ first year with the program and the won-loss record won’t reflect it.

11. Duke

Non-Con: NC Central, at Northwestern, at Notre Dame, Army

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Coastal Home: Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina
Coastal Road: Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Miami

Crossover: Wake Forest, at Louisville

What jumps out immediately is the first month, where road trips to Northwestern and Notre Dame will be difficult. A trip to Louisville also is problematic, but dodging both Clemson and Florida State in the crossover games is helpful. November also will present a challenge, even though North Carolina will be at home. Finishing the season at Pittsburgh and Miami will be interesting, as the Blue Devils may be road favorites depending on how things play out.

12. Virginia

Non-Con: Richmond, at Oregon, at Connecticut, Central Michigan

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Coastal Home: Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Miami

Coastal Road: Duke, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech

Crossover: Louisville, at Wake Forest

The Cavaliers pack all their non-conference games in the first month, and they are no cakewalk. The trip to Eugene to face Oregon is about as hard as it gets, and going to an improving UConn program won’t be a walk in the park, either. Luckily, the Cavaliers miss Clemson and Florida State in the crossover games and Louisville and North Carolina are at home. Closing with Miami and trips to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech aren’t ideal, but not the worst way to finish up.

13. Boston College

Non-Con: at UMass, Wagner, Buffalo, Connecticut

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Atlantic Home: Clemson, Syracuse, Louisville

Atlantic Road: NC State, Florida State, Wake Forest

Crossover: Georgia Tech*, at Virginia Tech

It can’t be understated that traveling over the Atlantic Ocean for the season opener can be a nightmare to recover from, making that Georgia Tech game a possible scenario where the UMass one the week after is more difficult than it should be. Outside of the obligatory dates with Clemson and Florida State, road trips to NC State and Wake Forest are virtual toss-ups, while getting Syracuse at home is a plus. UConn is another 50-50 type contest which could very well be the difference between making a bowl or not for Steve Addazio and the Eagles.

14. Wake Forest

Non-Con: Tulane, Delaware, at Indiana, Army

Atlantic Home: Syracuse, Clemson, Boston College

Atlantic Road: NC State, Florida State, Louisville

Crossover: at Duke, Virginia

This schedule is sneaky tough, as the only home game in the first two months that makes a difference because of the venue is against Syracuse. The four road trips in that span will all be ones where the Demon Deacons will most likely be underdogs. Virginia and Boston College are critical home games that could go either way, but Louisville and Clemson are near-certain losses, making the margin for error on bowl eligibility quite slim.

— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.