Wednesday March 10th, 2010

The dream of an all-powerful ACC seemed so close to reality when the league played its first 12-team football season five years ago. Top-quality basketball would merge with top-quality football, and teams in each sport would compete for national titles every year.

Basketball held up its end of the bargain, but football has not. Even the football league's divisions, chosen with no regard for geography to match marquee teams in the title game, haven't worked out. That's because with the exception of Virginia Tech, the programs that were supposed to dominate have turned out to be mediocre, or, at best, slightly above average.

Ideally, the league would prefer a championship game featuring Florida State or Clemson coming out of the Atlantic Division and Miami or Virginia Tech coming out of the Coastal Division -- with the winner heading to the BCS title game, of course. That was the hope when the ACC poached Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East. FSU beat Virginia Tech in the inaugural title game, but the league hasn't gotten a dream matchup since, and no ACC team has even sniffed the BCS title game.

That's bad, considering the league started negotiations this month for its next set of television contracts. Obviously, ACC basketball remains a valuable commodity, but the expanded league hasn't produced football teams the nation wants to watch. In 2005, Florida State and Miami were marquee draws, but the Seminoles' and Hurricanes' Q ratings have plummeted.

What's the ACC's biggest football perception problem? Here's a list of the teams that have the best chance to win the 2010 ACC title: Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. While it's great that so many programs are above-average, that's too many title contenders. A league needs a few elite teams to contend for national titles. So far, no ACC program has separated itself from the pack. The result: three- and four-loss teams playing for the conference title in a half-empty stadium.

That's not what ACC officials had in mind when they expanded. But hope springs eternal every March. Maybe this is the year an ACC team finally makes the leap.

It's impossible to pick one, but five of the six teams I mentioned as conference title contenders have the personnel to compete on the national stage and a major early out-of-conference game to prove that point. They are:

Clemson (at Auburn, Sept. 18): The Tigers may not even be able to answer their biggest question this spring. Will quarterback Kyle Parker return, or will he choose professional baseball? Coach Dabo Swinney has said he expects Parker back, but Parker, in his third season as an outfielder on Clemson's baseball team, is batting .378 with four home runs and 10 RBIs through the Tigers' first 10 games. If he keeps up that pace, he could be a wealthy minor leaguer this time next year. Parker will miss about five spring practices, and redshirt freshman Tajh Boyd will take first-team snaps in his place. C.J. Spiller is gone, leaving speedster Andre Ellington and bruiser Jamie Harper as the new lightning/thunder combo. No matter who plays quarterback, the Tigers will spend the spring trying to find starting receivers from a group that doesn't have a player who caught more than 14 passes last season. Everyone's watching Bryce McNeal, the Minneapolis import who redshirted in 2009.

Florida State (at Oklahoma, Sept. 11): FSU has a fantastic offense that averaged 421.4 yards a game in 2009. The Seminoles return their entire starting offensive line, and quarterback Christian Ponder -- a potential darkhorse Heisman contender -- has recovered enough from November shoulder surgery to participate in spring practice. But can Florida State stop anyone? The Seminoles ranked 108th in total defense (434.6 yards a game) and 94th in points allowed (30 points a game) in 2009. New coordinator Mark Stoops will have to teach a young group to tackle this spring. Sophomore cornerback Greg Reid, Florida State's best athlete, should be on the field for every defensive down from now on.

Miami (at Ohio State, Sept. 11): Miami's young talent isn't young anymore. The core group that includes quarterback Jacory Harris, receiver Aldarius Johnson, linebacker Sean Spence and cornerback Brandon Harris enters its third season. In 2009, the Hurricanes crushed the eventual conference champs and hung around the division race for much of the season. In 2010, Miami has a chance to return to the status it enjoyed at the turn of this century. But first, the Hurricanes have a few issues and a few holes to plug. Harris is out for the spring (Miami began practice late last month) while recovering from surgery on his throwing hand, but his absence could work in Miami's favor. The Canes had no depth behind Harris last season; now, backup A.J. Highsmith can take some quality snaps. Meanwhile, Orlando Franklin has moved from left guard to left tackle to replace NFL-bound Jason Fox.

North Carolina (vs. LSU in Atlanta, Sept. 4): The Tar Heels return 10 starters on offense and nine on defense from a team that went 8-4 before losing by two to a very good Pittsburgh team in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. We've been hearing that the Tar Heels are on the verge of competing for an ACC title since Mack Brown coached in Chapel Hill, but this may really be the year. In an offseason when a ton of key contributors could have gone pro early, everyone came back. Stud defensive tackle Marvin Austin, All-ACC linebacker Quan Sturdivant and the secondary tandem of Kendric Burney and Deunta Williams all chose to return, as did receiver Greg Little, who caught 62 passes for 724 yards and five touchdowns as a junior. With so much settled, the Tar Heels can stress fundamentals and work on a few key positions this spring. For example, will junior defensive end Quinton Coples take advantage of his Mario Williams-esque physique and terrorize ACC passers? Meanwhile, early enrollees James Hurst and T.J. Leifheit will compete to replace Kyle Jolly at left tackle, but the youngsters may just be keeping the position warm for sophomore Carl Gaskins, who should return from an ACL injury in time for preseason camp.

Virginia Tech (vs. Boise State in Landover, Md., Sept. 6): The Hokies will carry into the season the hopes and dreams of every high-major team that doesn't want to let a program from outside the BCS power structure into the BCS title game. Because, frankly, if neither Virginia Tech nor Oregon State beats the Broncos, Boise State is breaking through the glass ceiling. The Hokies will need to make big gains this spring, because they must replace the left side of their offensive line and much of their first-team defense. Look for Nick Beckton to replace Ed Wang at left tackle, unless coaches decide to slide right tackle Blake DeChristopher into Wang's spot. On defense, Jeron Goveia-Winslow and Alonzo Tweedy will compete to replace Cody Grimm at the Whip position.

Indeed, but the defending ACC champ lacks an early marquee out-of-conference game to prove its worth on a national stage. Georgia Tech plays at Kansas on Sept. 11, but the Jayhawks don't have the cachet of Ohio State, LSU and Boise State.

We probably shouldn't doubt Paul Johnson, who managed to reload at Navy, but he and his staff have a tough coaching job this spring. Gone is B-back Jonathan Dwyer, who rushed for a combined 2,790 yards and 26 touchdowns the past two seasons as the dive back in Johnson's option attack. " I would be really, really stunned if our B-Back next year doesn't gain at least 1,000 yards," Johnson said in January. "I think he will, they have every year I've been coaching and a lot of different guys have played that position through the years." This spring, converted A-back (pitch man) Anthony Allen will get first crack at replacing Dwyer.

The Jackets have quite a bit to replace on defense, most notably defensive end Derrick Morgan and safety Morgan Burnett, who each turned pro early. Johnson hired former Virginia and New York Jets head coach Al Groh to switch Georgia Tech to a 3-4 and to (hopefully) improve a unit that finished in the middle of the ACC in scoring defense and total defense.

So is this the year the rest of the ACC defenses figure out Johnson's option? Probably not. With so few teams running it, it's still going to perplex defenses with only a few days to prepare. Unfortunately for the Yellow Jackets, North Carolina and Virginia Tech will face them after open dates.

It might be Virginia Tech tailback Darren Evans, who looked poised to have a huge 2009 before he tore his ACL during preseason camp. Evans' injury opened the door for Ryan Williams, who led the ACC in rushing with 1,625 yards and 21 touchdowns. This spring, Hokies coaches can have fun drawing up plays for both backs.

Or it might be NC State linebacker Nate Irving, who missed last season after a car crash that left him with open fractures of the tibia and fibula in one leg. In English, that means the two bones of Irving's lower leg were sticking out of his skin. Irving rehabbed the leg -- as well as the separated shoulder he suffered -- and will be ready to play when the Wolfpack begins spring practice later this week.

Or maybe it'll be Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich, who has spent the past year fighting cancer. Herzlich, who was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma after doctors found a tumor in his left leg, has finished chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He'll take mental reps this spring -- no contact -- but the 2008 All-America hopes to be on the field when the Eagles open against Weber State.

The circumstances of Bobby Bowden's departure will increase the burden on Fisher, who worked for two seasons under a coach-in-waiting agreement. The plan was for Bowden to coach through 2010, but FSU officials forced out the second-winningest coach in FBS history to hand the reins to Fisher a year early.

No pressure, though.

Fisher has done all the right things so far. He has recruited well, beating out conference and in-state rivals for linebacker Jeff Luc (an early enrollee) and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner. He also has overhauled his defensive staff. Now, he just has to win. Even though one season isn't enough time to produce a fair assessment, if the Seminoles don't improve dramatically from a 6-6 regular season in 2009, people in Tallahassee are going to wonder why FSU canned a legend a year before he was ready to leave.

Yes, because London understands his state is loaded with great players. And while Virginia Tech is going to get some of those players, the rest shouldn't be leaving the state to play at Penn State or Florida or Tennessee.

"I am a product of -- and I'll use it as the kids say -- the 757," London said at his introductory press conference, referring to the area code in the state's Tidewater region. How committed is London to reconnecting to the region that produces the state's best players? On March 27, the Cavaliers will hold their final open-to-the-public practice of the spring on the Old Dominion campus in Norfolk.

Groh recruited some great players to Charlottesville -- just look at the last few NFL drafts -- but he didn't get enough. The correct coach can win huge at Virginia, a fine academic institution in a beautiful town smack in the middle of a recruiting hotbed state. London gets that, and it shouldn't take him long to lift Virginia into the upper half of the conference.

MORE BURNING QUESTIONS Pac-10: Can Lane Kiffin maintain USC's dominance? ACC: Will a nationally elite team emerge? Big East: Can Pitt dethrone Cincinnati? Big 12: Is it finally Nebraska's year? Big Ten: Can Pryor pick up where he left off? SEC: What's happening at Florida? THE REST: Can Boise break the glass ceiling?

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