In 2009, the Coastal Division was the strength of the ACC, with Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Miami all ranked among the Top 25 in the final Associated Press poll.
Expect a similar outcome in 2010, only add UNC to the mix.
The Atlantic Division should show improvement across the board, but it's still not ready to catch up to the Coastal.
Miami coach Randy Shannon and UNC coach Butch Davis are both facing higher expectations in their fourth seasons and have the personnel to deliver. Georgia Tech has numerous questions and holes to fill, but doesn't lack for talent or coaching. And Virginia Tech's offense should finally be clicking under Tyrod Taylor, who will have two 1,000-yard backs to work with. There are enough questions at Duke and Virginia to consider them status quo until they prove otherwise.
In the Atlantic Division, the expectations for FSU have increased threefold under coach Jimbo Fisher -- in part because of the talent that is returning on offense, the talent he has recruited and also because of the new energy he has injected into the program. While the Seminoles have the Gator Bowl momentum (not to mention the hype) to be considered a front-runner heading into the season, they're hardly a lock. (And the defense is still unproven.)
Despite the loss of C.J. Spiller, Clemson is still a very talented team, which should again contend for the division in the second season under Dabo Swinney. Boston College will be deeper and more experienced at the quarterback position, which will be key, and who knows what heights the return of linebacker Mark Herzlich can inspire the Eagles to. Maryland has nowhere to go but up after a 2-10 season, and the coaching staff at Wake Forest likes the talent on the roster, despite the uncertainty at quarterback. NC State has two legitimate quarterbacks to depend on, and winning a bowl game should be SOP for TOB in his fourth year.
Because of the progress we should expect to see in the Atlantic Division, this could be a season closer to the one we saw in 2008, where the conference was legitimately deep and there were an NCAA-record 10 bowl-eligible teams. Could be. Last year, the Atlantic Division simply wasn't very good.
Each team in the conference heads into 2010 with significant questions to answer, but the teams in the Atlantic Division have more to prove. Florida State, Maryland, NC State and Wake Forest combined for a 19-30 record last year. If the overall perception of the league is going to improve in 2010, that record has to improve first. Odds are, though, some of the toughest competition will come from the Coastal Division.