It would be a stunner if the Hurricanes make it to the College Football Playoff in the first year under Mark Richt. Despite an standout quarterback (Brad Kaaya) and a reenergized program, the Hurricanes are probably a couple cycles of good recruiting away from contending.
If the ACC has a seat at the playoff table, it will be a hard-won achievement – and while chaos should be expected and is always welcomed, there’s a good chance we’ll know where the conference stands before October.
Strength of schedule has always been a debate in college football, where the team you root for ain’t played nobody. Those discussions are now part of the CFP selection committee’s criteria. This year, a couple ACC teams appear to have playoff-worthy schedules.
Florida State has one of the nation’s most difficult slates, playing Mississippi in Orlando on Labor Day (as part of a really, really good opening weekend), visiting a plucky USF squad and hosting Florida. All bowl teams last year. All tough games.
Clemson, which usually plays another SEC team in addition to its annual game against South Carolina, visits Auburn to start the season. It’s hard to know how those two SEC games will look by December, but credit the Tigers for trying.
Louisville may not have loaded up with Power 5 teams, but road games at Marshall and Houston (a combined 23-4 last year) are a heck of a lot tougher than facing Kentucky.
No one would accuse North Carolina of having the most difficult non-conference run this year (or last year, when it wasn’t considered a playoff lock even if it beat Clemson in the ACC title game). The Tar Heels could see their hopes dashed earlier than that, opening 2016 in Atlanta against Georgia and visiting Illinois the next week. Now, hold on: Illinois? No, the Illini aren’t exactly mighty, and the Heels feel new quarterback Mitch Trubisky will be a star, but two Power 5 road games with a first-year QB isn’t a comfortable way to open the season. Playing FCS teams in their other nonleague contests, well, that’s cushy. It probably won’t impress the committee.
Those are the teams which, at this point, you might consider playoff contenders (Florida State and Clemson more so than Louisville and UNC). We’re not saying it’ll happen, but if Pittsburgh flips the script and joins them, it will be because it handled Penn State (they meet for the first time since 2000) and a road game at Oklahoma State in Weeks 2 and 3. Marshall arrives Oct. 1.
Same idea applies to Virginia Tech, potentially rejuvenated under new coach Justin Fuente. The Hokies will be big underdogs to Tennessee (at Bristol Motor Speedway) and Notre Dame, and maybe to East Carolina, which has won the last two meetings. And good on you, Duke: the Blue Devils visit Northwestern and Notre Dame in September.
Miami’s non-league slate starts easy (Florida A&M and FAU in the first two weeks) and ends tough. Appalachian State – which won 11 games last year – will be fired up about hosting its first Power 5 team (Sept. 17), and Notre Dame will be more than happy to welcome the Hurricanes to South Bend for the first time since 1990 (Oct. 29).
That’s a more difficult slate than Georgia Tech (plays at Georgia this year, also faces Georgia Southern), Virginia (finally a manageable slate, despite a trip to Oregon), Syracuse and North Carolina State (both host Notre Dame), and Wake Forest and Boston College (at the bottom of the conference, with schedules to match).
A dream scenario for Hurricanes fans: Miami’s path to the playoff includes winning those aforementioned games, plus beating FSU for the first time in seven years, winning at Virginia Tech on a Thursday, road games at Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and Virginia and home games against UNC, Pitt and Duke.
All the Canes have to do is beat everyone, and hope other teams take lumps along the way. Easy, right?