Very few things in sports are as great as watching two competitive Power Five conference foes compete in the first week of the college football season. It happens so rarely, it’s hard not to get excited for each and every clash because of the proclamation the victor can make for itself and its conference.
On the first weekend of the 2016 season, three ACC teams have a golden opportunity to state loud and clear that their conference is as good as the SEC, if not better.
The biggest of these three games, maybe the headliner of the entire first weekend, is Florida State versus Ole Miss. It occupies a time slot worthy of a headliner: prime time on Labor Day, Sept. 5, at a neutral site in Orlando.
While Florida State is a consensus top-two team in the ACC, the SEC is stacked with so many great teams, it’s tough to call Ole Miss a clear-cut top-two team in the conference alongside Alabama. Based on the rankings, they are actually the fourth-best team in the SEC and third-best in the SEC West.
That’s just a ranking, however. Ole Miss could easily transcend it.
The Rebels’ 6-2 SEC record last year, and the fact they have beaten Alabama two years in a row, speak for themselves. Ole Miss — with wins over Florida State and Bama — would gain the inside track to the playoff at a very early point in the season.
As we’ve seen with the College Football Playoff, early losses can be forgiven, but that doesn’t mean coaches want to get off to a slow start. The opener against Ole Miss is a mammoth game for Florida State and the ACC, especially without the Seminoles’ redshirt senior quarterback Sean Maguire. Redshirt freshman Deondre Francois will gain his first game action against one of the tougher defenses in the SEC.
The other two potential statement games for the ACC in Week 1 are Clemson at Auburn and North Carolina versus Georgia in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
No. 2 Clemson should knock off unranked Auburn, but Jordan-Hare Stadium is a tough environment to play in, and Clemson will be without sophomore defensive end Austin Bryant due to a foot injury. If Auburn can take advantage of Clemson’s lack of depth on the edges of its defense, the two Tigers could play a close game on the Plains.
Clemson cannot let that happen if the ACC is to make an early statement that it is equal — if not superior — to the SEC.
Right before the all-Tiger affair at 9 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, Sept. 3, the Tar Heels will take on the Bulldogs in the Georgia Dome. Most eyes will be on Georgia and new head coach Kirby Smart, but North Carolina went 11-1 last year and undefeated in ACC play prior to the ACC Championship Game against Clemson.
Many criticized North Carolina for having a very weak schedule, especially out of conference, a year ago. Even if they had beaten Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, most wouldn’t have considered the Tar Heels a playoff team. They would like to shred that label right off the bat in 2016 and pick up a big win for the conference.
Many around the ACC have discussed this summer how the football competition in their conference is much closer to the level of play in the SEC than people realize. Week 1 is their chance to prove it.