Starting a new college football season with “cupcake” games — essentially guaranteed wins over teams from a lower division — has become a modern tradition, but several ACC teams will kick off the 2013 season with big games against tough opponents.
Virginia Tech has arguably the toughest Week One game in the nation; the Hokies play reigning national champion Alabama in the Chick-fil-A College Kickoff Game in Atlanta, almost always one of the top games of the weekend.
The two teams also faced each other to open the 2009 season, but the circumstances were drastically different. Back then, Virginia Tech was the preseason No. 7 team, and Alabama was coming off a loss to Utah in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Since Hokies and Crimson Tide last met, Alabama has picked up three national championships. Virginia Tech is coming off its worst season in two decades but can turn things around in a big way with an upset of the defending national champs.
Clemson also kicks off its season with a high-profile game against an SEC powerhouse, facing the Georgia Bulldogs on Labor Day weekend. The Tigers finished last season with a huge last-second win over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve, and Georgia followed with a win over Nebraska in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Both programs have been among the best in their conferences the last few seasons, and both have experienced seniors starting at quarterback, along with a host of other talented returning starters. If Clemson can pull off a second-straight win in a marquee game against an SEC team, it will give Dabo Swinney‘s Tigers a big boost in national recognition and will prove that the ACC (or at least one ACC team) is no pushover.
Clemson’s main competition for the top spot in the conference over the last few seasons has been Atlantic Division opponent Florida State. Clemson won the conference in 2011, but their regular season loss to the ‘Noles in 2012 helped send FSU to the title game last season.
The Seminoles, breaking in a new quarterback to succeed longtime starter E.J. Manuel, start this year on the road with a conference game against ACC newcomer Pittsburgh. The Monday night game at Heinz Field marks the first time in 30 years the two teams have met on the football field, and the ‘Noles hope history won’t repeat itself: in their last face-off back in 1983, Pitt defeated FSU at Pitt Stadium, 17-16.
Neither of the new ACC teams is easing into the 2013 season. Syracuse will play Penn State in a non-conference neutral-site game at Met Life Stadium at the Meadowlands. PSU surprised many with an 8-4 finish in 2012, and the Nittany Lions could be even better in their second year under head coach Bill O’Brien. Syracuse was 8-5 in 2012, but their opener will be the debut for both head coach Scott Shafer and his to-be-named quarterback.
Last year’s Syracuse squad, packed with talented seniors, might have been favored to beat the 2012 version of Penn State, but this year, the Nittany Lions should be able to handle a new-look Orange team that will probably still have some adjustments to make.
Virginia also has a tough non-conference opponent opening weekend, hosting BYU in Charlottesville in the first game of a home-and-home series. The Cougars underwhelmed in 2012, but they did finish 7-5 with a win over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl, and three of their five losses came against ranked teams. At least they made it to a bowl game. The Cavaliers are hoping to get back to a bowl this season after a disappointing 4-8 year, but they sure aren’t doing it the easy way.
Big wins in high-profile games will do wonders to boost the conference’s image, but stumbles will reinforce the widespread notion that the ACC is soft. It’s an ambitious opening weekend, and the ACC’s football reputation is riding on it.