- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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Nonconfernece opponents (with 2012 records):
South Carolina State (5-6)
The Citadel (7-4)
At South Carolina (11-2)
ACC home games:
ACC road games:
At NC State (Thursday)
Gut-check time: Oct. 19 vs. Florida State. Yes, the season opener against Georgia is big, and the grand finale against South Carolina could be even bigger, but they won't mean as much if Clemson can't win the ACC. The Tigers lost this game a year ago, and in each of the past four seasons, the winner has won the Atlantic Division. The home team has won all four games in the series during that span, and FSU has not won at Clemson since 2001. Even if Clemson loses to Georgia and the hopes of a national title fade, Clemson can still bully its way through the Atlantic Division and get to the Orange Bowl again -- as long as it can survive gut-check time.
Trap game: Oct. 5 at Syracuse. Don't underestimate the Orange, especially at home in what will be the program's first kickoff as a member of the ACC. Syracuse is going to be looking to make a statement against one of the ACC's best teams that it's not just here to decorate the division and play hoops. Syracuse is starting to make a habit out of surprising teams. In each of the past two seasons, Syracuse upset a ranked opponent at home. The Orange did it in 2011 against West Virginia and Geno Smith. They did it last year against Louisville and Teddy Bridgewater. Who's next?
Snoozer: Sept. 7 vs. South Carolina State. This was a 5-6 FCS team last year, and it couldn't have come at a better time on the schedule. Clemson will just have finished an emotionally and physically draining game in the season opener against Georgia, a game we've been talking about since it was announced. With Georgia in the books and a bye week ahead, this is a good time for Clemson fans to put their feet up.
Defining stretch: Oct. 5-Oct. 19 (at Syracuse, Boston College, Florida State). As mentioned before, the games against Cuse and FSU will be critical for different reasons, but all three of these are Atlantic Division opponents, and the Tigers can't afford to slip up against any of them -- especially at home.
Final analysis: There is more than one trap game on this schedule, as heading to Raleigh on a Thursday night could also be dangerous for the Tigers, as will the Thursday night game against Georgia Tech on Nov. 14. Despite the presence of two FCS teams on the schedule, this is arguably the most difficult lineup in the ACC. The good news is that it is conducive to winning a national title. If Clemson wins the Big Three: vs. Georgia, vs. Florida State and at South Carolina, the Tigers should be a top-5 team looking at a chance to play in the last BCS national championship game. If Clemson wins those three games, though, and stumbles against Georgia Tech or falls into a trap at Syracuse, the entire picture changes. Those within the program believe the days of "pulling a Clemson" are officially over. This is the schedule that can further prove it. Dabo Swinney has recruited well enough to take the program to an elite level, but can he coach them there? He already beat LSU, but he has yet to beat South Carolina. This schedule is aggressive -- but so are Swinney's expectations.
4dDavid M. Hale