Huge weekend for the ACC
There is no way to underscore the importance of this upcoming weekend for ACC football.
It's basically two games, but two games that will go a long way in either changing how the nation views the league or two games that will further dismiss the conference as nationally irrelevant.
That's not entirely fair, but who says the national media and college football fans need to be fair? The ACC has backed itself into a corner, and the perception of the league has followed it. So as N.C. State and Clemson try to scrap their way out against Tennessee (Friday) and Auburn (Saturday), respectively, the dial on the ACC will be spinning.
Landing in the same spot it has in recent season-openers at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta will do nothing to help the conference. Clemson was blown out by Alabama in 2008, Virginia Tech was beaten much worse than the final score indicates in 2009, and North Carolina fell short versus LSU in 2010 in a game it had 13 mostly-important players suspended because of an NCAA investigation that eventually resulted in the Tar Heels being banned from a bowl game this season.
The Chick-fil-A Classic didn't even bother with an ACC club last year, instead pitting Boise State versus Georgia in the game. But the ACC is back, in basically a doubleheader that can give the league a new lease on its football life.
The Wolfpack and Volunteers do battle Friday night. Tennessee has struggled recently, going 23-27 in the last four seasons, so these aren't the Peyton Manning-led Vols of the 1990s. It's a club with the potential to get back into the postseason because it has athletes on defense and an NFL-ready quarterback.
But still, Tennessee has been picked by most preseason magazines and the SEC media to finish fifth in the East ahead of Vanderbilt and Kentucky. That means the good folks in Birmingham believe league newcomer Missouri is better than the Vols.
N.C. State, on the other hand, may be picked to finish third in the ACC's Atlantic Division, but it's behind Florida State and Clemson, two teams that believe they can contend for the national championship. The Wolfpack is considered by most ACC pundits as a dark horse in the conference.
So, if an ACC dark horse, which has an NFL quarterback and perhaps the nation's top secondary, can't beat an SEC also-ran on a neutral field, it will only serve as more fodder for the ACC. This is a must game for the league.
But the danger is that Tom O'Brien's teams have not started out well in his first five seasons and won't again this weekend. NCSU is 2-3 in openers under the former Boston College coach, with the two wins over FCS clubs, including an unimpressive showing last year versus Liberty. The three losses were at home to Central Florida and 34-0 and 7-3 losses to South Carolina in a home-and-home series. So this is big for the Pack, as well.
Clemson and Auburn have played the last two seasons with the War Eagles holding off Dabo Swnney's team on their way to the national championship two years ago, and last fall Clemson exploded in the second half to put away visiting Auburn. This game pits highly regarded orange and purple Tigers versus the blue and orange Tigers picked to finish fourth in the SEC West.
Clemson enters ranked 14th in the Associated Press poll while Auburn is the third team outside the rankings receiving votes. Clemson is loaded with offensive weapons, even with Sammy Watkins suspended for the game. Auburn has quarterback questions, and its fans don't expect their boys to light up the scoreboard this fall.
But that's where the most important aspect of these games comes in: Physicality.
You know Tennessee and especially Auburn are going to bring it physically. They are going to run fast and hit hard. They are going to carry a nasty edge many pundits say is often missing from ACC teams.
ACC clubs have sent a ton of defensive players to the NFL over the last decade, but its teams are too finesse oriented. That must change for the league to go 2-0 in the Dome this weekend.
The ACC needs to get nasty. It needs to play with an edge, and it needs to win both games.