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Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Once again, the ACC is facing exciting possibilities in a preseason top 10 team, and once again, it has nothing to do with Florida State or Miami.
Last year, it was Clemson's job to represent the ACC at the national level. The Tigers had a No. 9 preseason ranking heading into their season opener against Alabama. In the first 2009 poll to be released -- the USA Today Coaches' Poll -- Virginia Tech was ranked No. 7 heading into its season opener against Alabama. Talk of a national title has made its way through the locker room and into your living rooms.
And that's where the rest of the conference is collectively hoping the similarities end.
So far, the Hokies have held up their end of the bargain, and it started last year when they beat Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl, improving the ACC's BCS bowl record to 2-9 and snapping an eight-game postseason losing streak. The conference is still seeking respect on the national level, though, and there are only two ways to get it -- win the tough nonconference games and produce a legitimate national title contender.
Both of those seem to be realistic possibilities for the ACC in 2009.
"I think we're a step closer to affecting the national level," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said of the entire ACC. "Last year I didn't think we had a great team in the ACC. I think we had a lot of good teams. We're all stepping it up a notch and so I think we're getting closer to affecting the national stage, whichever one comes out of the ACC."
There will be ample opportunities for the ACC to do that, with nonconference games against Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama, just to name a few.
One glaring reason for optimism will be in the offenses -- you'll notice them. For the first time in the league's 56-year history, the ACC returns three running backs who each achieved 1,000 yards rushing the previous season. Georgia Tech junior Jonathan Dwyer, Maryland junior Da'Rel Scott and Virginia Tech sophomore Darren Evans each rushed for at least 1,100 yards in 2008. And nine quarterbacks return with starting experience, not including Virginia's 2007 starter, Jameel Sewell, and Miami's Jacory Harris, who split time at the position last year.
No conference was deeper or more balanced last year than the ACC, and that's expected to continue this fall. Last year, the average margin of victory in 48 ACC games was 10.77 points. Half of the games were decided by seven points or fewer. And right up until the final week of the season, 11 teams still had a chance to become bowl eligible. It's not unfathomable to think 10 teams could reach the postseason again.
While Virginia Tech and Florida State were picked by the media in July to win their respective divisions, six different teams received first-place votes. Despite the hype surrounding the Hokies, they've not only got to get through the only schedule in the ACC that doesn't feature an FCS school, but they've also got to get past Coastal Division contenders Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Miami.
With David Cutcliffe starting to win games at Duke, the ACC has literally gotten a boost from the ground up. Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and UNC coach Butch Davis have both already made a difference at their programs in as little as two years. Johnson won nine games in his first season, including a road win over rival Georgia and a home win over Florida State. Davis doubled his win total from four to eight and is looking to take the next step. O'Brien has the athletes to win the Atlantic Division, he just needs to keep them healthy.
Almost every team in the conference has made coaching changes or recruited players that signify an upgrade, but there was so much transition this offseason it could be a bumpy beginning for a few programs. Five schools -- Boston College, Clemson, Miami, Virginia and Maryland - brought in new coordinators. Two -- BC and Clemson -- have first-year head coaches. The coaches facing the most pressure are Virginia's Al Groh, Miami's Randy Shannon and Clemson's Dabo Swinney.
Nobody, though, is carrying the weight of the conference like Frank Beamer.