A Look Back on Top-5 ACC Matchups

Photo courtesy of Notre Dame athletics

The Atlantic Coast Conference has been around since 1953.

The league began as a geographical conference on the Atlantic Coast, of course, with eight teams ranging from the states of South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. It is safe to say the ACC has rarely been known as a powerhouse within the college football world.

The conference has had banner years and national champions over the decades, but it’s rare for the conference to have more than one elite program. In 1981, No. 2 Clemson and No. 9 North Carolina met in the first AP top-10 matchup in ACC history. Clemson won 10-8 en route to a 12-0 season and its first national championship.

It took 28 seasons for the ACC to experience that elite conference matchup. In the conference’s history, it has only seen six top-5 ACC regular-season matchups.

Here’s a look back at those:

Nov. 8, 1997: (3) Florida State 20, (5) North Carolina 3

After the 1981 game, it took 16 years for the ACC to have another top-5 matchup. North Carolina was still in its first stint under Mack Brown. Bobby Bowden and Florida State were still dominating the college football landscape. The game was highly anticipated but did not live up to the hype. Florida State’s defense absolutely suffocated the Tar Heel offense, holding it to only 73 yards. Despite the domination, both teams would finish the season in the top 10. Florida State would end the season ranked No. 3. UNC finished ranked No. 6.

Sept. 10, 2004: (4) Florida State 10, (5) Miami 16 (overtime)

This game was originally scheduled on Labor Day night. The two rivals would meet on Labor Day in 2005, 2006 and 2009. Hurricane Frances had different plans and pushed the 2004 game back by four days later to a Friday night. With this being the opening game of the season for both programs, there was plenty of hype. Florida State had lost five straight to the Hurricanes, while this would be Miami’s first-ever ACC game. The offense was lackluster, but a traditional Miami comeback made it exciting. After rallying from 10 points down in the fourth quarter, Frank Gore’s touchdown won it in overtime. Both programs failed to meet expectations in 2004, but each finished ranked in the top 15.

Nov. 5, 2005: (5) Miami 27, (3) Virginia Tech 7

Although Miami crushed Virginia Tech with College Gameday in Blacksburg, the Hokies would still go on to win the Coastal division in the first season of the ACC Championship game era. The Miami defense dominated the game. The Hurricanes held the Hokies to less than 200 yards and forced quarterback Marcus Vick into six turnovers. Virginia Tech would finish the season ranked No. 7 — 10 spots higher than Miami.

Oct. 19, 2013: (5) Florida State 51, (3) Clemson 14

Florida State quarterback and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston passed for a career-high 444 yards as the Seminoles dominated from start to finish in “Death Valley”. College Gameday was on site for the primetime showdown. The game was never in doubt. FSU went on to win its third national championship. Despite the disappointing night, Clemson closed the season with an Orange Bowl victory and a top-10 finish.

Oct. 1, 2016: (3) Louisville 36, (5) Clemson 42

In another contest that featured an eventual Heisman Trophy winner coming to Memorial Stadium, Lamar Jackson and Louisville scored 26 straight points to erase an early 18-point lead. In the end, however, two Deshaun Watson touchdown passes over the final 7:05 and a late stop of Jackson in the red zone was the difference. The teams accounted for nearly 1,100 yards in the contest. Clemson went on to win its second national championship. After a 9-1 start, Louisville dropped its final three games.

Nov. 7, 2020: (1) Clemson 40, (4) Notre Dame 47 (double overtime)

While the COVID-19-plagued 2020 season left much to be desired, Clemson’s visit to South Bend lived up to the hype. Clemson was without starting quarter and eventual No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Trevor Lawrence but DJ Uiagalelei shined in his absence, passing for 439 yards. Clemson was in position to win late, but Notre Dame’s Ian Book drew the Fighting Irish even with a game-tying touchdown pass with 22 seconds left. Kyren Williams rushed for two touchdowns in overtime and the defense came up with a timely stop for Notre Dame. In its only season as a member of the ACC, Notre Dame snapped Clemson’s 29-game conference winning streak. The two would rematch in the ACC Championship game with Clemson prevailing, 34-10. Both reached the College Football Playoff. Both were defeated in the semifinals.

ACC Questions Moving Forward

With the college football landscape rapidly changing, will the ACC find programs that can consistently be elite simultaneously? Having just six top-5 matchups ever is a surprise for a conference that has been around since 1953.

What are your predictions for the ACC?

Let us know in the comments section.