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Spring football: The next elite team, more burning ACC questions

Stop me if you've heard this one.

Q: Why did 50,000 ACC fans cross the road?

A: To get to the basketball intrasquad scrimmage on the other side.

So the ACC hasn't become the football goliath everyone predicted it would five years ago when the conference pilfered Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East. The ACC also hasn't been as horrendous as everyone seems to think. From 2003-07, the conference finished third out of the six BCS leagues in SI.com's Conference Power Index. During that same period, the ACC also produced more NFL players than any other conference.

In 2008, ACC members provided a few clues that the conference may finally have turned a corner. Virginia Tech broke the league's ignominious eight-game BCS bowl losing streak by beating Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl. Meanwhile, nine other teams also played in bowls. North Carolina improved from 4-8 in 2007 to 8-4 in the 2008 regular season. Georgia Tech befuddled teams with coach Paul Johnson's option offense. Freshman quarterback Russell Wilson dazzled defenses at N.C. State.

Now, the league must take the next step. A few elite teams must emerge and compete for the national title. Which brings us to the first of five burning questions as the ACC kicks off spring football. We promise, the word "bubble" will not appear even once.

Here's the problem with a league that put 10 teams in bowls last season: No one stands out, because everyone can beat everyone else. For the conference to get the respect it deserves, one or two teams need to break away from the pack. This season, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina and N.C. State all should improve, but defending champ Virginia Tech seems the most likely candidate. The Hokies will have to put in the work this spring to make the leap, but they have the raw materials. Last spring, Virginia Tech coaches weren't entirely sure who would throw, run or catch the ball. This spring, those questions have answers. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who was supposed to redshirt last season before coaches realized he gave the Hokies the best chance to win, is the unquestioned starter. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech returns seven starters from a defense that allowed a scant 16.7 points per game in 2008. How good can the Hokies be? We'll find out Sept. 5, when Virginia Tech opens against Alabama in Atlanta.

The offense belongs to sophomore Jacory Harris, who split time with soon-to-transfer Robert Marve last season. Harris has been chowing down in an effort to bulk up, and if he can reach his goal of 195 pounds without losing any speed, the sophomore could be a serious pass/run threat. Harris, Aldarius Johnson and the rest of the Hurricanes' offensive players will have the next few months to digest first-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple's scheme. Whipple, who came to Miami from the Philadelphia Eagles, instructed his players to break down NFL film early in spring practice to help them learn the offense. Harris seems pleased that the new scheme will allow him to deliver the ball quickly, which should help him in a conference loaded with quick pass rushers. Harris will spend the spring throwing to former high school teammates Johnson and Tommy Streeter. If the three mesh as well as Hurricanes as they did as Northwestern Bulls, the U might finally have an offensive identity again.

The Florida State legend, who will turn 80 on Nov. 9, has said he knows when he'll retire. He just isn't telling anyone. The Seminoles' recent dip in quality weighed on Bowden, and he wants to leave behind a healthy program. Still, it's unclear whether the plan will change now that the NCAA's committee on infractions has declared that FSU must vacate wins from a period when the Seminoles used players involved in an academic scandal involving an online music class. Before that decision, Bowden stood one behind Penn State's Joe Paterno on the Division I-A all-time wins list. The $64,000 question is this: How many wins will FSU have to vacate? President T.K. Wetherell contends the school didn't knowingly play ineligible players, so the debate about Bowden's win total could drag on for months. With JoePa still coaching, Bowden will have little chance to surpass his octogenarian rival if he has more than a handful of wins wiped from his record. At any rate, if Bowden doesn't retire after this season, he probably will after 2010. If Bowden wants to stay on after that season, FSU will have to pay coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher $5 million.

I sure hope so. When a man appreciates the nickname "Spaz," you want him to succeed. Jeff Jagodzinski's sudden January firing might have upended this program, but Eagles athletic director Gene DeFilippo promoted defensive coordinator Spaziani, who interviewed for the gig when Jagodzinski came on board two years earlier. That should provide some stability for a program that quietly won 48 games the past five seasons. Of course, Spaziani's promotion chased away offensive coordinator/mad genius Steve Logan, who also wanted the job. To replace Logan, Spaziani hired the twice-retired Gary Tranquill, a former Navy head coach and former Michigan State and North Carolina offensive coordinator. Tranquill, 68, should provide some sage wisdom, but can he design a scheme to help Dominique Davis and company find the end zone? He'll have help from 29-year-old receivers coach Ryan Day, a Jagodzinski holdover who was also considered for the offensive coordinator job.

Swinney, who received a battlefield promotion from receivers coach following Tommy Bowden's firing resignation, never acted like an interim coach, which probably explains why Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips gave Swinney the job for good after the Tigers closed the regular season with a win against rival South Carolina. This spring, Swinney and offensive coordinator Billy Napier will have to choose a new starting quarterback, but neither is opposed to rotating Willy Korn and Kyle Parker if necessary. Korn and Parker will play behind an experienced line, and they'll have the luxury of handing off to senior tailback C.J. Spiller. On defense, coordinator Kevin Steele -- late of Alabama -- gets eight starters back, and should have fun finding ways to use sophomore defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. Swinney and his staff have all they need to succeed; with ultra-passionate fans and fabulous facilities, Clemson is an SEC program stuck in the ACC. For whatever reason, the Tigers haven't taken advantage. It's about time they did.

MORE BURNING QUESTIONSPac-10: Who has the edge in the USC QB battle?ACC: Will VaTech emerge as a national player?Big 12: Who's poised to challenge OU and UT?Big East: Can West Virginia win without Pat White?Big Ten: How will Michigan recover from a 3-9 debacle?SEC:Lane Kiffin can talk, but can he actually coach?THE REST:What has Charlie Weis done to save his job?

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