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The most important conference game for every ACC program in 2023

On3 imageby:Jesse Simonton07/08/23


Every Saturday is important, right? Every college football coach utters the same weekly cliche about how their team is taking it game-by-game, and no one 60 minutes is bigger than the next. 


That’s a fine sentiment for coaches and players, but for fans and media, some games are more significant than others — particularly in the final season of the four-team playoff.

The rest of this week, I’m looking at the most paramount conference games for each Power 5 program. I started with the SEC, and looked at the Big Ten and Pac-12

Reminder: A team’s most important game could be a rivalry. But it could also be a trap game on the schedule or potential upset spots. Just because one team’s most important game may be against your alma mater though, doesn’t mean it’s the most significant conference matchup for your favorite school. 

The most important 2023 ACC conference games:

Boston College — Sept. 30 vs. Virginia

The Golden Eagles have one of the more favorable schedules in the ACC in 2023, which is good news for head coach Jeff Hafley, who enters the season on a simmering hot seat. 

Boston College doesn’t have to play Clemson, UNC or NC State, so if it can get past Virginia to end September, it should be — at worst — halfway to bowl eligibility after last season’s disappointing 3-9 season. 

This game has all the makings of a rock fight. The Hoos have a litany of questions entering the 2023 season, especially on offense, while Boston College could have one of the more underrated defenses in the league.

Clemson — Sept. 23 vs. Florida State

This is the Game of the Year in the ACC this fall, as both Clemson and Florida State will be preseason Top 10 teams and have legitimate College Football Playoff hopes.

The Tigers have a tricky opener at Duke, but they should be 3-0 when the Seminoles come to town. Clemson’s new-look offense with OC Garrett Riley and sophomore quarterback Cade Klubnick will have several games to get the early season kinks out, too

Clemson has won seven straight in the series, but last season’s 34-28 win was the first one-score game since 2016. 

Duke — Oct. 14 vs. NC State

The Blue Devils are looking to repeat last year’s surprising 9-4 season, and while they return one of the most experienced rosters in the country, the schedule is much more difficult in 2023. 

Mike Elko must find a way to navigate a slate that includes Notre Dame, Florida State, Clemson and NC State — none of which Duke faced a year ago. 

While Duke’s opener against Clemson is full of intrigue, and its showdown with North Carolina is a rivalry game, the NC State game in mid-October could be a pivot point in the Blue Devils’ season. They’ll have already played the Tigers and Irish, and will be coming off a bye before a three-game stretch that goes NC State, at FSU and at Louisville. Elko needs to find a way to win this game.

Florida State — Sept. 23 at Clemson

As previously outlined, this is the most marquee conference game this fall, but it carries particularly heavy stakes for the Seminoles if they hope to break through the glass ceiling and bust the CFP field

Depending on what happens in FSU’s opener in Orlando against LSU, the Seminoles could be in a must-win situation to maintain realistic hopes of making the playoffs. Still, a loss at Clemson wouldn’t eliminate their ACC title chances — likely a potential rematch. 

Georgia Tech — Nov. 18 vs. Syracuse 

The Yellow Jackets enter 2023 optimistic about the new direction of the program under first-year head coach Brent Key — the only interim from the 2022 carousel to earn the full-time job. 

But wins will be difficult to come by for Georgia Tech, especially with multiple non-conference games against SEC foes, plus trips to Clemson and Miami. The Bees end the season with a three-game stretch of at Clemson, vs. Syracuse and vs. Georgia. With the Bulldogs’ history of making Bobby Dodd Stadium Athens East and Tech’s long odds of upsetting the Tigers in Death Valley, beating Dino Babers’ Orange looks important in an effort to avoid a very ugly finish to the 2023 season. 

Louisville — Sept. 29 at NC State

I’ve made the case throughout the offseason that the Cardinals, under first-year head coach Jeff Brohm, are a darkhorse ACC contender precisely because they have one of the easier schedules in the league this fall. 

They don’t play FSU, Clemson or North Carolina, which is why a Friday night game at NC State looks critical for the Cards. Beat the Wolfpack — a team also looking to level up in the ACC — and Louisville could legitimately be 5-0 to end September before hosting Notre Dame the very next weekend. 

Miami — Oct. 21 vs. Clemson

The Hurricanes are looking for a major leap in Year 2 under Mario Cristobal, but despite roster improvements, little is guaranteed with a schedule that is among the more difficult in the ACC in 2023 — plus a non-conference game vs. Texas A&M in Week 2. 

Miami could be 3-3 or 6-0 when it welcomes Clemson to South Florida in late October. For Cristobal’s sake, there needs to be more Ws than Ls on the ledger with a tricky back-half slate that includes road trips to NC State, FSU and Boston College.

If the Hurricanes’ rebranded offense and defense have coalesced by midseason, there’s a possibility the Canes could give Clemson a scare in the most optimistic scenarios.

North Carolina — Nov. 25 at NC State

Both UNC and Duke have among the hardest schedules in the league this fall, and the Tar Heels’ season-finale against in-state rival NC State could go in all manner of directions depending on how the first 11 games of the year unfold. 

Drake Maye might be putting the finishing touches on his 2023 Heisman Trophy campaign. But the season-finale could also be Mack Brown’s final game at UNC if the season goes off the rails like it did a year ago.

The Tar Heels lost in a double-overtime thriller to the Wolfpack in 2022, closing the regular season with three-straight losses. This fall, they end the year vs. Duke, at Clemson and then at NC State. Tough.   

NC State — Oct. 14 at Duke

The Wolfpack is one of the trickier teams to handicap in the ACC this fall, as Dave Doeren’s program has new faces at OC QB and OL. NC State is expected to remain the backbone of the team, led by all-conference linebacker Payton Wilson

The Wolfpack aren’t projected to push for a conference crown — or even eclipse last year’s 8-5 record — but there’s a pathway for the program to win nine or even 10 (gasp for Doren!) games this fall — but it must find a way to win at Duke in mid-October for that possibility to come to fruition. 

NC State didn’t play Duke it in 2022, but it goes to Durham after a very manageable stretch where the Wolfpack could open the season 5-1. They host Notre Dame at home in Week 2, so that shouldn’t be counted as an auto-loss, either. 

Win at Duke, and NC State would have two weeks to prepare for a home date against Clemson just before Halloween. 

Pitt — Sept. 23 vs. North Carolina 

Pat Narduzzi is among the more underrated coaches in the country, winning the second-most games of any ACC program (20) the last two years. The Panthers no longer benefit from playing the Coastal Division, and their schedule is full of possible land mines in 2023. 

But it’s not totally unnavigable. While Pitt must play Cincy, at West Virginia and at Notre Dame in the non-conference, there’s a realistic path to starting the year 4-1 or even 5-0 before their bye week. That requires beating UNC at home, though. The Tar Heels housed the Panthers in 2022, with Maye torching them for nearly 400 yards and five touchdowns.

Syracuse — Oct. 26 at Virginia Tech

The Orange have a strange schedule this fall, with their first conference game not coming until the last weekend of September against Clemson. That game kickstarts a brutal three-game stretch of Clemson, at North Carolina and at Florida State. 

Dino Babers needs wins, though, and after losing six of seven to end the 2022 season, how the Orange finish this fall might determine if the veteran head coach is back on the sidelines in 2024. Syracuse has five winnable, albeit coin-flip, games to end the season, starting with a Thursday night trip to Blacksburg. Babers needs to best avoid losing to Brent Pry’s Year 2 Hokies. 

Virginia — Nov. 25 vs. Virginia Tech

The battle for the Commonwealth Cup won’t feature two good teams in 2023, but after the annual matchup was canceled last season following the tragic shooting at UVA, which led to the death of three football players, this game will be special for both programs this fall. 

With wins expected to be difficult to come by for Virginia and Va. Tech, ending the year with a victory over a bitter rival could provide some much-needed boost of momentum heading into the offseason for one of the two second-year head coaches. 

Virginia Tech — Nov. 25 at Virginia 

The Hokies have controlled the series against their in-state rivals, winning 21 of the last 25 meetings. Second-year head coach Brent Pry has his hands full trying to rebuild Va. Tech’s program, but he is still expected to continue the school’s dominance over the Hoos. 

Sandwiched between a home game against NC State, Va. Tech plays three road games in November — at Louisville, at Boston College and then at UVA. Ending the year on a high-note looks mighty important. 

Wake Forest — Oct. 21 vs. Pitt

The Demon Deacons weren’t done too many favors by the ACC schedule-makers, drawing four of the five best teams in the league (Florida State, Clemson, Duke and NC State) plus a road game at Notre Dame. 

Still, Dave Clawson has a history of exceeding expectations, and although Wake Forest has a preseason win total hanging around 5.5, I wouldn’t bet on Clawson’s team missing a bowl game for the first time in eight years. 

Wake could (probably should) be 4-0 coming off a bye week when it plays at Clemson the first weekend of October. The schedule has two very winnable games (at Va. Tech, vs. Pitt) before it stiffens significantly with a four-game stretch that goes FSU, at Duke, NC State, at Notre Dame. The Demon Deacons have played the Panthers just twice in school history. The last meeting came in a blowout loss in the ACC Championship in 2021.