Rise of the ACC?

For years, many years, in fact, the ACC has been mocked as a football conference. And a lot of that has been warranted.

The conference never really has been a football power – Clemson dominated in the 1980s, and Florida State did the same in the 1990s, but there never has been a whole lot of depth of powerful teams – and it really has struggled since the turn of the century. Many of those problems have come on big stages – bowl games, BCS bowl games and non-conference games with other power conferences, namely the SEC.

The ACC has a real chance to turn that around this season or at least take a step in the right direction. While there are plenty of games against lower division teams (although the ACC has lost its share of those, too), there are many games that could help change the conference's perception this season.

And that starts early with the first weekend of the season.

The weekend features a two-game, prime-time doubleheader in Atlanta pitting N.C. State against Tennessee on Aug. 31 and Clemson against Auburn on Sept. 1. While most of the country will focus on the SEC teams in those matchups, the ACC teams, really, should be favored going into both of them.

Tennessee has been a mess for some time, while N.C. State seems to get better each year under Tom O'Brien.

Clemson has played Auburn the past two years and should have won both of those games, settling for a win last year. If Clemson would have won two years ago in Auburn, in one of the most physical games I've ever seen, Auburn would not have won the national title that year. Last year, Clemson overcame a slow start to rally and beat Auburn to jump-start a magical three-game stretch that also included wins over Florida State and Virginia Tech.

Sure, Clemson won't have Sammy Watkins for the opener, and that definitely will hurt, but if there is one position at which Clemson has plenty of depth, it's wide receiver. So the Tigers should be able to handle his absence for his two-game suspension.

Auburn, on the other hand, is much improved on defense this year, but it has real questions at quarterback, and rarely do those kinds of questions get answered, at least not in a good way, in the opener against a strong team on national TV.

Those two games certainly won't decide the season for any of the four teams involved, but the weekend certainly could set the tone for them, especially Clemson and N.C. State. The rest of the conference could take that to another level with many of its key non-conference games the rest of the season.

Sept. 8
Miami at Kansas State
Penn State at Virginia
Duke at Stanford
Maryland at Temple
N.C. State at Connecticut

Outlook: Miami and Virginia have a real chance to step up and represent the conference in a big way. The Hurricanes haven't been relevant for years, but a win over Kansas State would help. Virginia has made progress under Mike London but a loss to a short-handed Penn State team would slow that some. Duke won't be favored to win at Stanford, but Maryland and N.C. State need road wins this weekend because losses would be tough to for the conference to overcome.

Sept. 15
Connecticut at Maryland
Boston College at Northwestern
North Carolina at Louisville
Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh

Outlook: You almost can take Pittsburgh off the schedule here because it will be an ACC team this time next year, but the ACC really needs to win these other three games as some of the conference's middling teams take on middling teams from other top conferences.

Sept. 22
Maryland at West Virginia
Virginia at TCU

Outlook: These are biggies. Two wins here (or maybe even just one) on the road against the Big 12's newest members could make as big a statement as wins in the opening weekend over the two SEC teams.

Sept. 29
Florida State at South Florida
Virginia Tech at Cincinnati

Outlook: It's sad that it has come to this, but yes, Florida State at South Florida is a big game for the conference. The ACC feels superior to the disaster that it is the Big East, so it can't lose a game like that one or have the Hokies stumble either.

Oct. 6
Miami at Notre Dame, Chicago

Outlook: Notre Dame might not be what it once was, but the old "Catholics vs. Convicts" rivalry always will be a big TV draw. And that's another chance for the ACC to shine on a big stage.

Oct. 27
BYU at Georgia Tech

Outlook: Georgia Tech is a dangerous team this year with a deep, strong and veteran offensive line. The Yellow Jackets will get to show that off against a Cougars team they should be able to control.

Nov. 10
Notre Dame at Boston College
Outlook: The battle of Catholic school programs offers the Eagles a rare spotlight game this season.

Nov. 17
Wake Forest at Notre Dame
South Florida at Miami

Outlook: Notre Dame completes its games against ACC teams for the season. Why don't the Irish just join the conference already? Ten years ago, Miami and Florida State fans never would have believed that games against South Florida would be considered important. But they really are.

Nov. 24
Florida at Florida State
Georgia Tech at Georgia
South Carolina at Clemson
Vanderbilt at Wake Forest

Outlook: South Carolina has turned the tide on Clemson the past three years, but the conference needs the Tigers to stop that slide this year. This four-game ACC-SEC showdown weekend wraps a bow on the conference's regular season. ACC fans should know from this weekend to end the season, plus the games in Atlanta to start the season, what kind of year it will be.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter @DM_Shirley

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