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Friday, March 6, 2009
Looking for improvement in '09

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

While I was writing the Duke piece on Thursday, it got me thinking about other teams that are going to take significant steps forward in 2009, beginning this spring. Here are five teams in the ACC that will show the most progress this year:

1. Duke -- Even if it doesn't show up in the win column, the Blue Devils will be marginally better in the second year under coach David Cutcliffe. He already took an important step by bringing in better, faster athletes in the most recent recruiting class, and they've got one of the top two quarterbacks in the league.

2. NC State -- Quarterback Russell Wilson will not only be better in his second season as a starter, but he -- and everyone else for that matter -- needs to stay healthy. The rest of the coaches in the league are definitely hoping Wilson is a "china doll" and continues to break easily. The real difference, though, will be on defense, where defensive tackle Alan Michael Cash and linebacker Nate Irving will emerge as two of the best in the conference.

3. Virginia Tech -- Yes, it's possible to win the ACC title and look even better doing it again. Last year's team was good, not great. This year's team has the potential to take it to a whole new level. (Admit it, Hokies, there was a little bit of luck and a lot of good coaching last year). Look out for linebacker Cody Grimm, and three starters return on the offensive line to help that backfield shine. The young wide receivers really started to grow up in the final few Saturdays last season.

4. Wake Forest -- The offense has to improve, and it will, because the offensive line will be better. That's where the problems began last year, as it was a patchwork unit filled with injuries and inexperience. The Demon Deacons have nine starters returning on offense, and that should help offset the loss of the top playmakers on defense until others emerge.

5. Miami -- If it weren't for their first four games, there would be more reason to be more confident in the Canes' chances this season. They're oozing with talent, offensive coordinator Mark Whipple's reputation precedes him, and they only lost six starters. There's certainty at quarterback, and Jacory Harris might have the deepest corps of receivers to throw it to.

Now, if you don't see your team listed here, don't panic. Teams like Georgia Tech and North Carolina won at least eight games last year, and don't have much further to climb. Or, there are too many reasons to remain unconvinced (Virginia, Clemson). Regardless, the entire conference should be stronger in '09, and that's because the two teams that top this list will strengthen it from the bottom up.