Before the season began, the big question was whether there would even be an ACC football season. Now that it’s all over but a few post-season games, we can look back and be impressed by what the coaches, players, and yes, the team doctors were able to accomplish.
An Uncertain Start.
As late as August, none of us were sure if there would even be a 2020 ACC football season. Indeed, in the very first weekend three games had to be canceled or postponed, and one non-conference opponent had to be replaced. That theme was repeated numerous times throughout the season, but despite those difficulties, most of the games were played eventually.
ACC Teams Ranked.
Big wins in the first week of ACC football led to five conference teams* being ranked in the second week (officially college football week #3): #1 Clemson, #7 Notre Dame, #12 UNC, #17 Miami, and #25 Pitt. By the following week, two more ACC teams had joined the top 25 - #20 Virginia Tech and #24 Louisville - and Pitt had risen to #21, which resulted in a top 25 showdown at Heinz Field between the #24 Louisville Cardinals and the #21 Pittsburgh Panthers. Pitt won that game but fell three spots as Big Ten teams joined the AP ranking. Unfortunately for the Panthers, that’s the week they also lost their first game - to an NC State Wolfpack team which was unranked at the time but would eventually finish in the top 25.
NCAA week #6 featured two ranked-on-ranked ACC conference games: an all-top-10 affair between the #1 Clemson Tigers and the #7 Miami Hurricanes, and another top 25 game between the #8 North Carolina Tar Heels and the #19 Virginia Tech Hokies - all of whom were still unbeaten at the time. Clemson and UNC won those games, respectively, although the Tar Heels suffered their first loss the following week in Tallahassee, Florida. Virginia Tech managed to hold onto a top 25 ranking for one more game, but a second loss ended the Hokies dreams of a special season.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame ran roughshod over the ACC, taking down Florida State, Louisville, Pitt, and Georgia Tech - all of which simply set the table for the big game...
The Game of the Year.
NCAA Week #10 showcased ACC football in what many considered the game of the year as the top-ranked Clemson Tigers fell to the fourth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish in South Bend, in overtime. That game turned out to be the highest-rated television broadcast of the college football regular season, and was only eclipsed by the rematch in the ACC Championship Game... but I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the first 11 weeks, the Liberty Flames were a thorn in the ACC’s side, having beaten the Syracuse Orange and the Virginia Tech Hokies, but in week #12 NC State finally ended their reign by holding the potent Flames offense to just 14 points in Raleigh.
A Strong Finish for Pitt, NC State, and UNC.
Pitt got back on the winning side by defeating Florida State in week #11, then earning a resounding victory over a demoralized Virginia Tech team in week #12. Meanwhile, NC State just kept winning after the Liberty game and managed to climb into the top 25 themselves by the season’s end.
The ACC served up something much better than leftovers and holiday sales on Black Friday: another top 25 matchup, this time between #2 Notre Dame and #19 UNC, which was won by the Irish. Of course, the usual Thanksgiving weekend ACC-SEC rivalry games were all canceled by SEC edict due to COVID-19.
December 12th seemed a bit late to be playing regular-season college football, but that’s just what happened in 2020. If you’re going to do a thing, you may as well do it right! The ACC put on another show in week #15 as the 17th-ranked Tar Heels exploded for 62 points at the home of then 10th-ranked Miami.
Meanwhile, Pitt finished its season with a win at Georgia Tech in what I like to call the “Pandemic Bowl” since it was essentially the return game for the 1918 “Game of the Century” played in Pittsburgh during that year’s global pandemic.
Another Clemson Championship.
The only thing left after Thanksgiving weekend was Championship Week, in which Clemson got revenge over Notre Dame, thus securing two playoff spots for the ACC* - making it the only conference besides the SEC to accomplish that feat so far.
Of the 90 ACC football games which were scheduled for the 2020 season (each of 15 teams scheduled to play five ACC home games, five ACC road games, and one non-conference home game), the league managed to actually play 85 of them, or 94.4 percent, which is remarkable in my opinion. The fact that league teams also finished the season with five teams in the top 25 and put two teams into the college football playoffs is just “icing on the cake.”
- note: throughout this article I’ve counted Notre Dame as an ACC football team because that’s what they were in 2020. I realize that relationship probably won’t continue - but it was good while it lasted.