By Will Vandervort
The unofficial ACC vs. SEC Challenge in college football begins tonight as North Carolina visits No. 7 South Carolina in Columbia.
“I don’t know how many times (South Carolina has) had this opener,” North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said. “I know they have got it again next year. It seems like they have had it a lot of times, so they obviously love this opener, especially at their place on national TV, and they have done a tremendous job with it. So they are going to be pumped and ready to go.”
The rest of the ACC is ready to go, too. On Saturday Virginia Tech will play top-ranked Alabama in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome in Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, while eighth-ranked Clemson—the preseason favorite to win the ACC—host No. 5 Georgia in Death Valley.
With Clemson, Virginia Tech and North Carolina all playing top of the line SEC opponents this weekend, it gives the conference the opportunity to make some noise on the national scene, especially considering Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina all rank in the top 10.
“Well, I think first of all, it’s just the fact that it’s Georgia, and again, there’s just a lot of history and tradition with these two schools, No. 1,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “That in itself creates a lot excitement and buzz, especially when we used to play every year and haven’t played in a long time now. So there’s a lot of excitement there.
“But regardless of what conference they are from, you’ve got the No. 5 team in the country coming to your stadium, that’s all that really matters. As far as the SEC goes and all that, we’ve been playing SEC teams every year and been in a lot of battles with that league and our guys have a good understanding of what it takes to be able to beat a very good team regardless of what conference they come from.”
Clemson was 2-1 against SEC competition last year, including a win over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Tigers are the only team in the last three years to beat three SEC opponents that were ranked in the top 25. A win over Georgia on Saturday would make Clemson the first team in the history of college football to win back-to-back games against top 10 SEC opponents.
“It’s about being good on that night and executing your plan to win and playing with great effort and toughness and all that kind of stuff,” Swinney said. “But I think it’s just more about Clemson, Georgia, than anything else and the fact that, hey, both teams are preseason Top-10-type teams and a lot is on the line.”
A lot is on the line in Columbia too, but Fedora says the Tar Heels are not carrying the banner for the ACC alone when they play the Gamecocks.
“I don’t know if we’re carrying it — not by ourselves,” he said. “You still have Virginia Tech and Alabama, Clemson and Georgia playing. But we are a big part of that, there’s no doubt about that. And if we are going to accomplish the things that we want to accomplish as a league, these are the kind of games we have got to play in and these are the kind of games that they have to have success in.
“You know, I would prefer that it be three or four years into the program and the changes that we get are in place before we play this kind of game, but hey, it is what it is. We are playing in year two, and it’s the opening game of college football, and so let’s throw it out there and let’s roll.”
Though Clemson and North Carolina don’t have the easiest of task, Virginia Tech has perhaps the toughest draw of the weekend as they play Alabama in the Georgia Dome. The Crimson Tide has won three of the last four BCS National Championships and is the preseason favorite to win it all again this year.
“I never thought one team could dominate college football the way they have the last few years,” Hokies head coach Frank Beamer said. “They’ve got a terrific program. They’ve recruited great players, and they coach them up.
“They are a really outstanding football team. So I think our kids are eager to play.”
Like Swinney and Fedora, Beamer could not stress enough how big of a weekend this is for the conference as a whole.
“I think we’ve talked, and it’s very obvious that the one thing the ACC needs to do to establish our reputation is to do well against non-conference teams,” the Hokies’ head coach said. “Of course, I think the SEC is without a doubt the best conference in the country. So when you play an SEC team, it probably has an extra meaning in that regard.
“So I think you judge that over the long haul, the — not just one Saturday, but, you know, I think it’s important that all of us do well.”
If it does not go well this weekend, the ACC will get one more shot at the end of the year when Clemson plays South Carolina, Georgia Tech faces Georgia and Florida State battles Florida.
The ACC Schedule for this week:
North Carolina at No. 7 South Carolina, 6 p.m.
Presbyterian at Wake Forest, 6:30 p.m.
Florida Atlantic at Miami, 8 p.m.
Elon at Georgia Tech, noon
Villanova at Boston College, noon
Florida International at Maryland, 12:30 p.m.
La. Tech at NC State, 12:30 p.m.
BYU at Virginia, 3:30 p.m.
Penn State at Syracuse, 3:30 p.m.
North Carolina Central at Duke, 4 p.m.
No. 1 Alabama vs. Va. Tech, 5:30 p.m.
No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 8 Clemson, 8 p.m.
No. 11 Florida State at Pitt, 8 p.m.