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It’s the biggest week of college football ever in Charlotte. The nation is watching us.

The Clemson Tigers lock arms after their victory in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte last season. Clemson will return to Charlotte on Saturday to play Georgia at Bank of America Stadium.

The Clemson Tigers lock arms after their victory in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte last season. Clemson will return to Charlotte on Saturday to play Georgia at Bank of America Stadium.

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The 2021 college football season is upon us, and it opens on Labor Day weekend with a Charlotte-centric bang.

Three games.

Three nights.

All in Charlotte.

All intoxicating in their own way.

I can say quite confidently that, at least around here, we’ve never seen anything like it. In order of appearance:

Appalachian State vs. East Carolina at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 2, in Bank of America Stadium — a matchup of two historic in-state football programs with deep and passionate fan bases.

Duke at the Charlotte 49ers at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 3 — the first time that the 49ers have ever hosted a Power Five opponent on campus.

And then the grand finale at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 4 — Clemson vs. Georgia in Bank of America Stadium, a sold-out game between two national powerhouses that will inevitably have championship implications.

“We’re playing an in-state ACC opponent at home for the first time in program history,” Charlotte 49ers coach Will Healy said of that weekend, “and we’re also sandwiched between two other absolutely great games at Bank of America Stadium (both part of the Duke’s Mayo Classic). It’s such a huge weekend for our city. It’s really cool to think about all these other programs — they’re coming to us. We all live here. We all work here. And now they’re all coming to Charlotte.”

There have arguably been single games with more significance held in Charlotte — several recent ACC championship games come to mind, including the most recent one. Clemson’s 34-10 whipping of Notre Dame in December 2020 wasn’t much of an actual game, but it did pit two games that came into the contest ranked in the top 4 nationally.

But there has never been an extended college football weekend in Charlotte like the first one in September 2021, a joyful celebration of college football as it tries to return to semi-normalcy after COVID-19 ruined large swaths of 2020.

Fans?

Oh yeah. They’re coming in droves, as is ESPN’s College GameDay, which will broadcast from Romare Bearden Park in uptown Charlotte on Sept. 4. The top-5 national matchup between Clemson and Georgia is officially sold out, with tickets on the secondary markets going for $300 a piece. And that’s for the cheap seats.

If you want to sit in the lower deck for Clemson-Georgia and either cheer or boo Tigers coach Dabo Swinney and his latest team up close against the Bulldogs, prepare to pay closer to $800.

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Charlotte 49ers head coach Will Healy has a historic opener for his team this season — Duke at home on Friday, Sept. 4th. Jeff Siner [email protected]

The other two games still have good seats available for far less money, but both will draw crowds that would be considered gargantuan by 2020 standards.

Ah, 2020. What a mess.

The fact that college football games and seasons were routinely postponed or canceled wouldn’t crack the top thousand for most important COVID-related news items from that forgettable and deadly year. But for those immersed in the sport, the constant stop-start-stop-start was quite a challenge.

“We finished 2-4 and had nine games canceled,” said Healy, whose nine-game count there is based on several games being delayed or canceled multiple times. “I think seven of those were within 48 hours of game time and about five of them were around the 24-hour mark of the game. I mean, there were a bunch of days where we had our Friday practice, and then we found out that we weren’t playing the game on Saturday. So we’d put an entire week’s worth of preparation into it already. And that’s kind of a double whammy.”

Not that Healy’s complaining — he understands all that was at stake in 2020.

But in 2021, he hopes that actual football, and not a disease, controls the conversation around the sport.

One of the six games the 49ers did play last year was at Duke, and the Blue Devils whipped Charlotte, 53-19. “They dominated us,” Healy said. “I don’t think there’s any other way to put it.”

It’s difficult to make up 34 points in a year, but the 49ers will try. They have big dreams, some of which were fulfilled in 2019, when they made it to a bowl game and had a winning record for the first time.

“I would hope that as long as they let me have this job that there’s nobody I ever say we can’t beat,” said Healy, who is 36 and entering his third year as Charlotte’s head coach. “We’ve got to put our money where your mouth is, but we want to win a conference championship. We want to play in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Hopefully, down the road, as they expand this thing, we’d love to be in a college football playoff and do what some of the schools around us have been able to do.”

Continued Healy, on a roll now as his vision spooled out: “We would want to follow the blueprint of an App State. Or follow the blueprint of what Coastal Carolina did last year or of what Liberty did last year (both schools finished ranked in the top 20 in final AP poll last season). We’d love to have one of those types of years. We’ve never done it, so it sounds awesome to talk about. But until we do it, it’s just a pipe dream.”

That’s what the preseason is made of, though: Dreams and pageantry and promises. The city of Charlotte will be a bigger part of that than ever before in 2021.

If you can, take Labor Day weekend off. And pace yourself: That weekend, and this college football season, is going to be quite a ride.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing and has earned 15 national APSE awards. He hosted The Observer’s 8-part podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.”
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