SI.com's Stewart Mandel breaks down the 2003 conference race and predicts the final standings.
After grabbing more than its share of national attention this summer, ACC football should keep up the pace on the field this fall. After a spending the better part of a decade as a one-trick pony -- that pony being Florida State -- the league enters 2003 with four top 20 teams, any of which could wind up the conference's BCS representative.
The favorite out of the gate is North Carolina State, both because of who returns -- record-setting QB Philip Rivers and all-freshman running back T.A. McLendon -- and who arrives, namely a host of former blue-chip recruits expected to have an immediate impact. Chuck Amato's crew should be explosive, even more so than last year's 11-3 squad that crushed Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl.
The Seminoles are still the defending champs, however, even after a disappointing 9-5 campaign. If bruising runner Greg Jones is recovered from a knee injury, FSU's offense should be punishing, but the defense needs to regain that toughness it's been missing the past couple of seasons.
Coming off an 11-win season of its own, one that included a 30-3 Peach Bowl thumping of Tennessee, Maryland welcomes back former All-ACC running back Bruce Perry, who missed most of last season with various injuries, but the Terps may suffer a bit on defense without All-America LB E.J. Henderson.
The team with the most potential may be Virginia, which won nine games and finished second in the ACC last season despite relying on a bevy of freshmen. Will overnight sensation Matt Schaub wind up a one-year wonder or soon-to-be Heisman candidate?
Things aren't quite as rosy for the rest of the conference. Clemson coach Tommy Bowden is on the hot seat following consecutive seven-win seasons, North Carolina slipped from 8-5 to 3-9 last year, Wake Forest must rebuild its entire offense, Georgia Tech's players can't seem to find their way to the classroom and Duke, albeit slightly improved, is still Duke.
Lorenzo Booker, Florida State running back: Greg Jones is still the man, but rest assured that Bobby Bowden will find a way to get the vaunted frosh on the field.
Ahmad Brooks, Virginia linebacker: After a year at prep school, the former all-everything recruit arrived last spring and instantly flashed star potential.
Greg Gathers, Georgia Tech defensive end: The 2001 All-America selection could be this year's feel-good story after missing last season with a kidney ailment.
Justin Miller, Clemson cornerback: He burst onto the scene as a true freshman by grabbing eight interceptions and averaging 35.1 yards on kick returns.
Mario Williams, N.C. State defensive end: The 6-foot-7, 254-pound monster headlines NCSU's "Magnificent Seven" recruits who enrolled in January.
Does Florida State trust Chris Rix? Last year, his teammates basically mutinied -- and that was before the quarterback missed an exam and had to sit out the Sugar Bowl. But with Adrian McPherson nothing but a bad memory and no one else exactly waiting in the wings, FSU badly needs the battle-tested Rix to finally become a reliable leader both on and off the field.
Can Bruce Perry return to stardom? When Maryland lost its All-ACC runner for most of last season due to a series of injuries, it plugged in senior Chris Downs and didn't miss a beat. With Downs graduated, however, the Terps are depending on Perry to return to his workhorse form of two years ago, when he gained 1,242 yards. It's a lot to ask of a guy who hasn't rushed for 100 yards in a game since Oct. 6, 2001.
Is there any hope for Carl Franks? You wouldn't believe it looking at the 2-10 record and third straight winless ACC campaign, but Duke did actually show marked improvement last season, coming within a field goal of N.C. State, Clemson and North Carolina. With a whopping 20 starters returning, the Blue Devils should be even more competitive, but will they produce enough wins to save a 5-40 head coach?
Sept. 13: We'll find out quickly enough whether N.C. State is for real when the Wolfpack visit defending national champion Ohio State.
Oct. 11: Miami-Florida State is always a must-see, but especially since blood will be boiling after last year's stunning Wide Left finish.
Nov. 1: If all goes according to plan, there will be BCS implications galore this day when FSU travels to Notre Dame and N.C. State hosts Virginia.
Nov. 13: Under the Thursday night lights, regional rivals Maryland and Virginia meet with the conference title potentially at stake.