Luke DeCock

Why it’s worth paying attention to early ACC football games this season

Running back Jordan Brown (2), center, runs through a drill after getting a handoff from QB Brandon Harris (6) as the UNC Tar Heels hold football practice at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill on August 2, 2017.
Running back Jordan Brown (2), center, runs through a drill after getting a handoff from QB Brandon Harris (6) as the UNC Tar Heels hold football practice at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill on August 2, 2017.

The resumption of N.C. State’s traditional rivalry with South Carolina on Saturday is merely one of several games that match ACC teams with SEC teams or have national-title implications this weekend. And it doesn’t stop there. September is filled with games that could play outsized roles in ACC division races, not to mention the earliest-ever meeting between North Carolina and Duke.

It’s a big month for ACC football, the best beginning month to the season from a fan’s perspective in recent memory, despite Thursday night’s opening snoozer between Wake Forest and Presbyterian.

The opening weekend also includes neutral-site games between Florida State and Alabama in what may be the biggest regular-season game of 2017 and West Virginia and Virginia Tech. Later, Pittsburgh and Penn State continue their renewal of old hostilities before Louisville plays Clemson and Miami plays Florida State in Week 3.

All told, there are eight ACC games with either postseason implications or traditional rivalries being played in September, up from five a year ago and four in 2015 (which includes the first week of October, the fourth week of that season).

It’s a veritable feast of watchable football in September, a long way from the days of four dismal nonconference games before ACC play begins – although only two years removed from N.C. State’s opening slate of Troy, Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion and South Alabama. This year, the Wolfpack plays both South Carolina and Florida State before October hits.

Things move quickly these days. And the good news? It’s only going to get better.

The days of easing into the conference schedule are over. Between made-for-TV neutral-site games between the ACC and SEC in Atlanta and Charlotte, networks’ preference for more important games earlier in the season and increasingly complicated conference and nonconference scheduling, the ACC football schedule is only going to get less backloaded. Some traditional rivalries, both inter- and intra-conference, will still be saved for the final week. But everything else is fair game.

We can discuss the ways television’s influence is changing college sports for the worse – particularly in the ACC, with the advent of the ACC Network, and especially in basketball – but in this instance, it’s actually better for fans both partisan and neutral. Networks know these are the games people want to watch, and spacing them out over the course of the season – and not just the final eight games, the traditional “conference” season, but in September and October – works better for everyone but coaches, who would probably prefer to play all their important games after a bye week in November.

Television isn’t always a factor. Duke and North Carolina are playing because a combination of Duke’s scheduling requests and other ACC schools’ nonconference schedules dictated that Duke play a road ACC game in Week 4, and the Tar Heels were the only opponent that met those requirements – a happy accident, but one that fits the general trend.

And with three ACC teams that annually finish with a nonconference rival – Florida State-Florida, Louisville-Kentucky, Georgia Tech-Georgia – their conference games are inevitably pushed earlier in the season. When both Florida State and Louisville are division-title contenders, and they draw Miami and Clemson instead of Boston College and Syracuse, this is where you end up.

It’s rare in college sports that things move in a fan-friendly direction, so savor this one. It’s a great month of ACC football, on paper at least. Whether the teams can deliver on the anticipation is always a mystery, but it has a chance to be the most entertaining September in a long time.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947,, @LukeDeCock

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