Ask any coach and he’ll tell you they’re all “must-win games,” and the beauty of college football’s current system is that he’s right -- without a playoff, there is no margin for error.
If the ACC is going to boost its reputation, though, there are three nonconference games it absolutely must win (and no, I’m not going to be snarky and write James Madison, William & Mary and App State, although the league certainly can’t afford to lose any of those, either).
IF the ACC wins one or all of these three games, consider this season better than last year:
1. Oklahoma at Florida State, Sept. 17: No nonconference game during the regular season is bigger. The Sooners are a legitimate national-title contender, and the only way for Florida State to become one this season is to win this game.
2. Clemson at South Carolina, Nov. 26: Yes, Auburn is the defending national champion, but it’s not the same team. South Carolina should be the best SEC team an ACC team faces this year, including Georgia and Florida. Add to that the fact that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney won’t do his career any favors if he loses to the Gamecocks a third straight season.
3. The Orange Bowl. The ACC is 2-11 in its BCS bowls. The only problem with this opportunity is that the matchup doesn’t always guarantee an opportunity at a statement win. Virginia Tech’s win over Cincinnati helped the ACC’s BCS bowl record, but in retrospect, it didn’t do anything to help the league’s image. A win over Stanford? That would have resonated for years.
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Ohio State at Miami, Sept. 17: This would still be considered an important win in Al Golden’s first season, and a sign that things are headed in the right direction, but without Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor, the national impact will be diminished.
Auburn at Clemson, Sept. 17: Considering Clemson’s overtime loss last year, Auburn should be expecting the Tigers’ best shot in Death Valley. This is the kind of win that could be a turning point for Clemson and give the Tigers the confidence they need to head into back-to-back games against defending division champs Florida State and Virginia Tech, but nationally, the win would lose some luster because Auburn is an entirely different team than the one that won the national title. The significance of a Clemson win would increase throughout the season, though, as Auburn is likely to be a better team in the second half of the season and could boost Clemson's SOS.
Georgia at Georgia Tech, Nov. 26: It’s not like Paul Johnson hasn’t won this rivalry game before. He just hasn’t been able to do it the past two seasons. The expectations are higher for the Bulldogs than they are for the Jackets this year, but both defenses should be better in the second season of a 3-4 scheme.
Florida State at Florida, Nov. 26: Anytime the Noles get a win over their rivals -- especially in Gainesville -- it’s monumental for the program, but considering the Gators are under a new staff and expectations are lower, a win this year wouldn’t carry as much clout as a win over Oklahoma would. Now, if FSU beats BOTH of those teams, the rest of the conference should send Jimbo Fisher thank-you cards.
Stanford at Duke, Sept. 10: With the exception of Oklahoma, this will likely be the best team the ACC will face in the regular season. Problem is, Duke isn’t ready to beat a top-10 team yet. If the Blue Devils manage the upset, it would dramatically legitimize the depth in the conference and make a huge statement that Duke is ready to contend under David Cutcliffe. If.