A few weeks ago, the first SP+ rankings were released, and it didn’t take long for people to start focusing on Clemson’s 2021 schedule. Outside of their giant opening game against the Georgia Bulldogs in Charlotte, Clemson didn’t have another SP+ Top 40 team on their regular season schedule. Although Clemson will likely face a CFP Top 25 opponent in the ACC championship game if they win the Atlantic Division, the narrative quickly became that Clemson wasn’t likely to get a spot in the CFP Top 4 if they lost to Georgia – that there would be American Athletic teams that would have better resumes than Clemson if they finish as a 12-1 ACC champ.
I quickly downplayed the argument. There were multiple teams in the ACC Atlantic that were underrated by the SP+, which is ultimately a computer ranking, and can’t consider all the intangibles that impact teams, especially in the 2020 season impacted significantly by COVID.
The truth is, however, that the ACC hasn’t thrown a lot of challenges towards Clemson in the past three seasons. Clemson’s resume to get into the Top 4 could use some improvement from their ACC peers, particularly in the Atlantic Division, regardless of the outcome of the Georgia game. These games are the biggest games this season when it comes to boosting Clemson’s strength of schedule and the ACC’s reputation nationally.
September 4th: Alabama vs Miami
While Clemson is getting ready for their prime-time opener against Georgia, the Hurricanes will be testing themselves against the defending national champions. Miami’s chances in this game are highly dependent on the health of starting quarterback D’Eriq King. The Canes don’t necessarily need to win this game to get credit, but they do need to show up and be competitive, or it will start a narrative from the beginning about how far apart a favored contender for the ACC Coastal is from a SEC defending champ that had to replace a ton of starting production from the previous season.
September 5th: Notre Dame at Florida State
One of the great things about the opening weekend of college football is that since the NFL hasn’t started their regular season, Sunday’s airtime is available. This year, the ACC’s former football member and CFP playoff participant, Notre Dame, will hit the road to take on one of the ACC’s traditional powers in Florida State. The Seminoles hope the addition of McKenzie Milton will be the stabilizing force that will allow the talent they still have in Tallahassee to blossom. Milton proved his worth at UCF, but a major injury derailed his college career. Will he be able to return to form? Notre Dame has several holes to fill in their starting lineup, most notably quarterback Ian Book and a couple standouts on the defensive front seven. We should find out very quickly if Milton will be a difference maker for a Seminoles squad hungry for positive success.
September 6th: Ole Miss at Louisville
Monday’s airtime is available too. Louisville made a big jump in Satterfield’s first season, but part of that was due to how far they had fallen in Bobby Petrino’s last season. The Cardinals came back to Earth a bit during a challenging 2020 campaign. The Louisville faithful were hopeful to rebound in 2021, but then Satterfield’s unprofessional and awkward handling of his interest in the SC job strained his relationship with the fanbase further. Louisville needs to shed that negative energy and start well against a SEC opponent and hold serve.
September 11th: NC State at Mississippi State
Another Atlantic hopeful starts against a SEC opponent, but this time they are on the road in Starkville. What kind of team will The Pirate field in Year 2? There has been a lot of turnover at Mississippi State. It will be difficult for the Wolfpack to know exactly what they are facing, but they need to bring their best if they are to shed the reputation for only having a good record because they play a weak schedule. Any road win against an SEC opponent is a big plus.
September 17th: UCF at Louisville
It isn’t often that a P5 team can impress by beating a G5 opponent, but UCF is one of those opponents. They have a reputation for being that next tier below the P5, even though they are now two coaching staffs past their peak as a program. A Louisville win won’t change the world, but it will help avoid the narrative that a team like UCF would run wild against an ACC schedule.
September 24th: Wake Forest at Virginia
Wake has several opponents on their schedule that can help them build a reputation, and Virginia isn’t often mentioned as a team that will challenge for the Coastal. The reason this is a great chance for Wake is that it is a Friday game. It isn’t the only game that night, but it will be a chance for the Deacs to shine on a bigger stage than normal.
September 24th: Liberty at Syracuse
Another Friday game. Most people will be wondering how badly Liberty will stomp Syracuse. Liberty was a darling of college football in a pandemic squeezed season, only to fall victim to an outbreak when they had their chance for a Top 25 matchup with Coastal. On the other hand, Syracuse had such a challenging season that most people are wondering when Coach Dino Babers will be fired, and not if, but one thing Clemson fans know is that the Carrier Dome isn’t a cake walk. This will be Syracuse’s chance to shine and show that while they may not be a top ACC team, they can still beat the Group of Five.
September 25th: Missouri at Boston College
One of the teams SP+ did not respect is BC, which many expect to be a decent team. Additionally, the Eagles schedule breaks just right. Their most difficult Atlantic division opponents (outside of Clemson) – NC State, Wake Forest & Florida State – must travel to Chestnut Hill. Their toughest road opponent (outside of Clemson) is Louisville. Wins against all those teams won’t mean much if BC can’t handle a middling SEC opponent at their home stadium. A win against Missouri is a must.
October 23rd: NC State at Miami
The Pack travel to BC and then turn around the following week and visit Coral Gables. Games like this inevitably define the Wolfpack’s season – no one can blame them for not winning against elite teams, but they must get wins like this to break that 9-win glass ceiling that haunts the fans in Raleigh.
November 6th: Florida at South Carolina
SC’s schedule is full of games that would be huge victories if the Gamecock’s pulled off the upset. Unlike BC, SC’s schedule just doesn’t break their way this year. Georgia and Texas A&M are road opponents for them this season. Auburn returns to Columbia, and a 2nd win in a row against War Eagle would be awesome for the Gamecocks, but I think their other big opponent they host at Williams Brice is their big opportunity. Florida is expected to take a step back from their peak in 2021, and guess who the Gators play the week before SC? You got it – Georgia. Can you say hangover game? You may not pull for the Gamecocks under any circumstances, but it will help Clemson if SC can pull this upset.
November 14th: Miami at Florida State
Their opening game against the Irish will tell us how much Milton means to the Seminole offense, but this is a November test that will tell us how much heart this FSU team has, and how much head coach Mike Norvell can motivate his team against a big rival. They need to bring their best against Miami, because rivalry month is just getting started for the Noles.
November 26th: North Carolina at NC State
Another Friday Game during traditional rivalry week, the Tar Heels could be playing for a Coastal division title & a berth in the ACC championship game. If there is a team that would love to ruin it for the Fighting Mack Browns, it is the Fighting Dave Doerans, who might be trying to break that aforementioned 9-win glass ceiling.
November 27th: Florida St at Florida
That’s right Clemson fans – whether you like it or not, there is no team that has more chances to boost the reputation of the ACC, the Atlantic division, and Clemson’s 2021 schedule than our best buddies, the Florida State Seminoles. By this time, the Noles of the past three years would have long folded and would be hoping the season ended as fast as possible. What is this Mike Norvell squad made of? If this team brings their best against the Irish, and keep up the intensity through to a November matchup with the Canes, they will have a chance to top it off against a Florida team that might be ripe for the picking.
We will just have to wait and see.