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Take 2: Toughest schedule in the ACC

2d

There are several ACC teams that are set to play tough schedules this season. But who plays the toughest? ACC reporters Matt Fortuna and Andrea Adelson pick sides and debate.

Matt says: Louisville.

The ACC has no shortage of challengers for this crown, but Louisville stands out above all, and a big part of that is because of who the Cardinals play early on.

Louisville will open the season in Atlanta against Auburn, a popular preseason pick to win the SEC and make the College Football Playoff. What's more, the Cards return home a week later to face a Houston team that went 8-5 last season and brings in a new coaching staff, headed by QB maestro Tom Herman from Ohio State. That's a stellar nonconference coup on its own for Louisville, but it becomes even more difficult when folded in between its Week 1 opponent (Auburn) and its Week 3 opponent, likely ACC favorite Clemson, which the Cards will have just five days to prepare for. Can anyone say "trap game" against the Cougars?

FCS Samford after that is a nice reprieve, but Louisville can hardly relax: It travels to Atlantic darkhorse contender NC State a week later, before a bye gives way to a trip to three-time defending ACC champion Florida State. Always-tough Boston College comes to Louisville after that.

And that really, in a nutshell, is what gives Louisville the degree-of-difficulty edge here over several other worthy contenders (Georgia Tech and Virginia in particular) for the "toughest schedule" crown: The Cards play in the Atlantic, the tougher of the two ACC divisions. Sure, the same is true of Clemson, which has a pair of tough nonconference tests in Notre Dame and South Carolina, but the Tigers' Week 3 trip to Louisville is their only road game in the first half of the season -- and it comes after facing a pair of FCS opponents at home. Clemson also has 16 days between that trip to Louisville and its home game against Notre Dame.

Louisville's schedule eases up a bit down the stretch -- at Wake Forest, vs. Syracuse and vs. Virginia from Oct. 30-Nov. 14 -- but those are still league games, far from layups. And trips to Pitt and improving rival Kentucky await at the end of the season.

Louisville gets just six home games in 2015. And for a Cards team that just lost 10 players to the NFL draft, facing a pair of national title contenders in the first 12 days of the season is hardly a way to break new starters in.

Just ask the 2014 Clemson team, a young squad whose playoff hopes were over before they even began thanks to early-season games at Georgia and Florida State. Perhaps things could have turned out differently had those games been later in the schedule.

Andrea says: Miami.

I could win this debate every single season by shouting Virginia! dropping the mic and walking away. But that would be too easy (and a little unfair). So I am going with a different team from the Coastal. Matt suggests Georgia Tech or Virginia as worthy candidates.

My choice?

Let’s go to the empirical proof. We don’t need to get all fancy with numbers, either. There’s only one that matters. Add up the win-loss record of Miami’s opponents. That number comes to 97-58, the third-toughest among all schools in the country. Virginia is next at 94-62. Miami faces nine teams that were bowl eligible last season; Louisville seven.

The Hoos might get the nod for nonconference degree of difficulty (Notre Dame, Boise State, UCLA), but Miami gets the nod for nonconference degree of difficulty (Nebraska, at Cincinnati) paired with Atlantic Division degree of difficulty (Clemson, Florida State).

Miami also gets the nod over Louisville and Virginia for oh-my-goodness-gracious-look-at-that-five-game-gauntlet degree of difficulty. Louisville might open with two tougher games, but nobody in the ACC has this difficult a five-game stretch: Nebraska, at Cincinnati on a Thursday night, at Florida State, Virginia Tech, Clemson.

Total them up, and you have (in order): a team that ran for 343 yards in their meeting last year; the favorite to win the American; a team that has won five straight meetings between them; a favorite in the Coastal; a favorite to win the ACC.

Even if you take Nebraska and Cincinnati out of the equation, Miami has the toughest three-game stretch to open ACC play. A team that so desperately needs momentum and a good season to quiet the critics could be staring down an 0-3 hole before October even ends. The Canes have rotated Louisville and Clemson the last two years from the Atlantic, a bit of bad scheduling luck compared to their Coastal competitors.

The second half of the schedule is far friendlier than the first. Ideally, coaches want their toughest games sprinkled throughout the schedule, not stacked the way they are for Miami this year. Louisville, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia have some tough games. But their overall schedules are not tougher than what the Canes must face in 2015.