Optimism high in ACC, league tries to make it last

Things are finally looking up for the Atlantic Coast Conference

with a league-record five football teams ranked 20th or higher in

the preseason poll and some traditional powers poised for breakout

years.

Or maybe it’s merely another chance for the beaten-down

conference to disappoint.

The ACC is at a crossroads.

The league is in great position to generate some positive buzz

about its football prowess. However, to start changing the

perception that it is nowhere near as tough as the Southeastern

Conference, Big 12, Pac-10 or Big Ten, the ACC needs to get off to

a fast start.

Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer says the ACC is legit.

”I think the league is for real. I think the coaching, the

play, it’s for real,” said Beamer, who’s Hokies are No. 10 in the

preseason poll. ”If we play enough games, I think we’ll win our

share. … You don’t base a league particularly on one ball game or

a couple of ball games. I think you base a league over a period of

time, but I don’t think there’s any question the ACC’s for

real.

”It’s a very competitive, very good football league.”

Beamer is right, there seems to be no shortage of ACC teams

capable of competing on the national stage – at least on paper.

”We’re all starting to get a lot of big games starting off

early, in the beginning of the year,” North Carolina linebacker

Bruce Carter said. ”I think our conference is rising, and guys are

starting to rise to the occasion.

”It gives us a chance to say we can compete with anybody in the

country, rather than just playing ACC contenders throughout the

season.”

Maybe, but one bad weekend will generate more of that ”same old

ACC” chatter.

To avoid that, ACC teams need to win more than a few of those

early interconference matchups, beginning with the Top 25 matchups

between No. 18 North Carolina and No. 21 LSU on Saturday in Atlanta

and Monday when Virginia Tech meets No. 3 Boise State.

It won’t be easy. It hardly ever is for ACC teams.

The Tar Heels have been dealing with the distraction of an NCAA

investigation: A dual-pronged investigation into possible

improprieties concerning agent-player benefits and potential

academic misconduct. Then, key defensive tackle Marvin Austin was

suspended indefinitely for violating undisclosed team rules.

In the coming weeks, nearly every ACC team plays a marquee

matchup against a big-name nonconference opponent, from Miami vs.

Ohio State to Duke vs. Alabama. But if North Carolina and Virginia

Tech can’t set a strong tone early, the big games that follow might

wind up being viewed as less attractive merely by association.

Perhaps that’s one reason why Maryland quarterback Jamarr

Robinson is pulling hard for the Hokies. ”I feel like they’re an

extension of us,” he said.

Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder feels the same

way.

”There’s always an argument over what conference is the best in

the nation. Every year is a different year, and there’s been the

argument the ACC hasn’t been as strong as the SEC and the Big 12,”

said Ponder, whose Seminoles visit Oklahoma next week. ”That’s a

big thing for us. It is important for all of us to be able to

compete outside our league and play well.”

The ACC’s perception seems to suffer most when standard-bearers

Miami and Florida State are considered to be down. That’s what

happened in 2006, when the Hurricanes and Seminoles took a step

backwards, allowing Wake Forest to win its only championship since

1970. There were justifiable questions about strength of the ACC

last year.

Perennially lowly Duke entered November with a chance to win the

Coastal Division. The same Blue Devil team that opened 2009 with a

loss to a Championship Subdivision team, Richmond.

The ACC can’t afford any more of those early slip-ups and there

are several potential potholes this week with Presbyterian-Wake

Forest, Elon-Duke and Richmond-Virginia among the eight matchups

with FCS teams.

But not all of the coaches take the ACC talk seriously.

”I know that North Carolina and LSU are playing here and

Virginia Tech and Boise State are playing. What else are the

spotlight games? Maryland and Navy, I guess,” Georgia Tech’s Paul

Johnson, the former Midshipmen coach, said laughing.

”It’s big up there. State championship.”

All joking aside, early losses to those lower-level schools

would raise serious questions about the depth of a league that is

seeking respect.

Since the BCS was formed in 1998, the ACC is a combined 2-10 in

those games – the worst among leagues with automatic access to the

big-money bowls. The ACC has only one major bowl victory since the

2000 season. By comparison, Boise State needed just four years to

rack up that many wins in the BCS.

”A lot of people don’t give the ACC much credit in football,

always saying it’s a basketball conference and the SEC is the

dominant conference,” North Carolina tight end Zack Pianalto said.

”So to be able to get a chance to go out there against LSU and

show what we have is something we’re really excited for.

”Obviously the Boise State-Virginia Tech thing is on the same

level. If Virginia Tech can go out there and do something well …

that just speaks volumes about where this conference is heading in

football.”

AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill; Hank Kurz Jr. in

Blacksburg, Va.; Charles Odum in Atlanta; David Ginsburg in College

Park, Md.; and Associated Press Writer Brent Kallestad in

Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.