- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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If you listen to the coaches, every game is a big game, but the truth is, some are bigger than others. Some can make or break a season, define a conference race, or make a statement on a national level. Sometimes, one game can do all three. Here’s a look at the five biggest games in the ACC for 2011:
1. Oklahoma at Florida State, Sept. 17: There are a lot of big nonconference games in the ACC this fall, but this one tops them all because Florida State is the league's best chance at a national title contender. This game will determine if the Seminoles are national title material, or if their best hope this fall is an ACC title. Florida State was beaten in every facet of the game the last time these two teams met, but expectations are much higher now that the defense knows what to expect from coordinator Mark Stoops, and the bulk of last year’s Atlantic Division title team returns. How big of a leap, though, will FSU make from Year 1 to Year 2 under Jimbo Fisher? This game will determine that.
2. Miami at Maryland, Sept. 5: This game went from B movie to blockbuster overnight. A matchup between two first-year head coaches is one thing, but now there is added drama with Miami’s ongoing NCAA investigation. Who will play and who won’t is as much of a question as who wins. It’s the first conference game of the season, and while the teams are in opposing divisions, it WILL have an effect on the final standings. Equally if not more important, though, is how Miami responds to the off-field allegations. We’ll know quickly which direction the Canes are headed, and how Al Golden gets his team to respond to adversity.
3. Florida State at Clemson, Sept. 24: The Seminoles haven’t won in Death Valley since 2001. If they’re going to win the ACC title, odds are that streak is going to have to end this year. Both teams will be coming off highly anticipated national games, and both have lured in some of the top recruits in the country in the most recent recruiting classes. Both programs have two of the better defenses in the ACC, and both are introducing first-year starting quarterbacks. This will be one of the first games that determines the pecking order in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
4. NC State at Florida State, Oct. 29: This is a game that will go a long way in determining the Atlantic Division winner. It had a major impact on the conference race a year ago, and has the ingredients for another fourth-quarter finish. FSU is favored to win the ACC this year, but NC State won nine games last season and is looking to finish what it started last year. The Wolfpack has a favorable schedule conducive to an impressive start that could build some heavy momentum heading into Tallahassee. It will take more than momentum, though, to beat the Noles on the road.
5. North Carolina at Virginia Tech, Thurs., Nov. 17: Historically, the Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech game has determined the winner of the Coastal Division, but this offseason, the Tar Heels have looked stronger than the Jackets. Besides, the Hokies have been thrown off track by UNC before. In 2009, Virginia Tech lost at home to UNC on a Thursday night. This year, it will be a great matchup up front, as both programs are strong on the offensive and defensive lines. It will also be an intriguing game between two rookie quarterbacks.