No shortage of chances for ACC to improve image

The Atlantic Coast Conference’s reputation has taken plenty of

hits since it expanded to 12 teams. The league certainly has plenty

of chances this year to shut those critics up.

A conference best known for its basketball can prove it belongs

among college football’s big boys with a few victories in a lineup

of early intersectional games that could go a long way toward

reshaping its battered perception.

”There’s pride in your school, pride in your league and pride

in your fraternity of (coaches),” Boston College’s Frank Spaziani

said. ”It’s a tough league, and I don’t think we hold a back seat

to anybody.”

They’ll have several chances to prove that, all in the first

month of the season: North Carolina opens with LSU, and two nights

later, Virginia Tech plays Boise State. Miami visits Ohio State.

Virginia travels to Southern California. Clemson is at Auburn.

Florida State takes on Oklahoma.

Even Duke has the chance to pull an upset for the ages when it

plays host to defending national champion Alabama.

If it pulls out a few victories in there, the ACC can strengthen

its claim that football is much more than just something to pass

the time until hoops season tips off.

A series of lopsided losses, though, would represent another

blow to the image of a conference that has a 2-10 record in BCS

games – the worst mark among the six leagues with automatic access

to those glitzy bowls – and has won only one big-money bowl game

since adding Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004 and BC in ’05.

”I don’t think we’ve fallen behind” the Southeastern

Conference, Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. ”I’m going to be real

blunt: I don’t think we’ve ever been ahead of the SEC or even with

them, to this point. I think it’s in reverse – I think the ACC is

moving upward in that model. The SEC has an older football

tradition, a little stronger fan bases. I think you close the gap,

you get into intense fan bases, intense growth in the interest in

your sport. I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

It might help the league’s image that several of its expected

marquee players this season are on the offensive side of the ball.

While the ACC’s dominating force could well be a North Carolina

defense packed with NFL talent, the offenses boast playmakers such

as Ryan Williams and Tyrod Taylor of Virginia Tech, Miami’s Jacory

Harris, and preseason player of the year Christian Ponder of

Florida State.

”I’m high on ours, but there are a lot of deserving players on

that list,” Hokies coach Frank Beamer said.

A capsule look at teams in predicted order of finish:

Coastal Division

VIRGINIA TECH – Key players: QB Tyrod Taylor, RB Ryan Williams,

WRs Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin, DT John Graves. Returning

starters: 8 offense, 5 defense.

Notes: Virginia Tech and Texas the only teams with at least 10

wins in each of last six seasons. … Traditionally stout Tech

defense must find replacements for six starters, including LB Cody

Grimm and DE Jason Worilds.

NORTH CAROLINA – Key players: QB T.J. Yates, DL Marvin Austin,

LBs Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter, S Deunta Williams. Returning

starters: 10 offense, 9 defense.

Notes: Tar Heels have an ACC-best 21 returning starters,

including both specialists. … They return the bulk of the ACC’s

top defense in 2009, but season could hinge on how well they handle

the distraction of an NCAA probe into whether two players had

improper contact with agents. … North Carolina looking for third

straight bowl berth, which hasn’t happened since Tar Heels went

bowling every year from 1993-98.

MIAMI – Key players: QB Jacory Harris, WR Leonard Hankerson, DE

Allen Bailey, CB Brandon Harris. Returning starters: 6 offense, 8

defense.

Notes: Hurricanes hope to regain RB Graig Cooper, coming off a

major knee injury from Champs Sports Bowl loss to Wisconsin. … K

Matt Bosher is the nation’s most accurate returning kicker, hitting

32 of 36 field goals and 90 consecutive extra-points.

GEORGIA TECH – Key players: QB Josh Nesbitt, RBs Anthony Allen

and Roddy Jones, LB Brad Jefferson. Returning starters: 6 offense,

8 defense.

Notes: Defending ACC champs are looking for replacements for

their leading rusher (Jonathan Dwyer) and receiver (Demaryius

Thomas). … Nesbitt is 692 yards shy of Woody Dantzler’s league

record for yards rushing by a quarterback. … Yellow Jackets have

last three ACC coaches of the year on their staff – head coach Paul

Johnson won it in 2008 and ’09, and new defensive coordinator Al

Groh was the 2007 honoree at Virginia.

DUKE – Key players: WRs Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon, CB

Chris Rwabukamba. Returning starters: 9 offense, 6 defense.

Notes: Three returning Blue Devils had at least 50 receptions

last year, giving new QB Sean Renfree several options as he gets

comfortable replacing four-year starter Thad Lewis. … Duke’s five

wins last year were its most since 1994. … Blue Devils haven’t

won a game in November since 2004.

VIRGINIA – Key players: QB Marc Verica, WR Kris Burd, DB Ras-I

Dowling. Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.

Notes: New coach Mike London served two stints as an assistant

coach in Charlottesville. … Cavaliers’ last-place finish in 2009

was their first since the ACC split into divisions in ’05. …

Verica threw for 2,000 yards as the starter in 2008 but played

behind Jameel Sewell last year.

Atlantic Division

FLORIDA STATE – Key players: QB Christian Ponder, OG Rodney

Hudson, LB Nigel Bradham. Returning starters: 10 offense, 6

defense.

Notes: New coach Jimbo Fisher looking to lead Seminoles to

NCAA-best 29th straight bowl appearance. … Ponder averaged nearly

322 total yards in his nine starts last season. … Florida State

must replace three starters from a secondary that ranked 11th in

ACC in passing yards allowed.

BOSTON COLLEGE – Key players: RB Montel Harris, LBs Mark

Herzlich and Luke Kuechly. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7

defense.

Notes: Harris is on pace to break Derrick Knight’s school career

rushing record this season. He’s 1,368 yards shy of the mark of

3,725 and has averaged nearly 1,200 in his first two seasons at BC.

… Herzlich, the ACC’s defensive player of the year in 2008,

returns after missing last season to fight a rare form of cancer.

… Eagles looking for their 12th straight bowl trip.

CLEMSON – Key players: QB Kyle Parker, RBs Andre Ellington and

Jamie Harper, DT Jarvis Jenkins. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6

defense.

Notes: Ellington and Harper have one of college football’s

toughest jobs: replacing do-everything threat C.J. Spiller, the

2009 ACC offensive player of the year. … It helps that the Tigers

return four offensive line starters. … Parker, the Colorado

Rockies’ first-round draft pick, is the only player in Division I

history to throw 20 touchdown passes and hit 20 home runs in the

same academic year.

N.C. STATE – Key players: QB Russell Wilson, WRs Jarvis Williams

and Owen Spencer, LB Nate Irving. Returning starters: 7 offense, 5

defense.

Notes: Wolfpack have two of the league’s top receivers, with

Spencer averaging a FBS-best 25.5 yards per catch and Williams

leading the ACC with 11 touchdown receptions. … The Rockies also

drafted Wilson, who spent the summer playing minor-league ball. …

N.C. State must find some stability in the secondary, which was a

revolving door last season in allowing opponents to complete nearly

63 percent of their passes.

WAKE FOREST – Key players: RB Josh Adams, WR Marshall Williams,

CB Kenny Okoro. Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: Demon Deacons hope they’ve found a replacement for

four-year starter Riley Skinner in Skylar Jones, who is considered

more of a running threat. … Five of Wake Forest’s seven losses

were by a combined 13 points, while two wins came by a touchdown or

less.

MARYLAND – Key players: WR Torrey Smith, RB Da’Rel Scott, LB

Alex Wujciak. Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense.

Notes: Scott looking to regain his form after finishing with

just 425 yards rushing during an injury-plagued junior season. …

Terps’ one ACC victory in 2009 was their fewest since they were 1-7

in the league in 1998. … Projected QB Jamarr Robinson made two

starts in Chris Turner’s absence last season.