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Atlantic Coast Conference out to prove its swagger is back

It's hard to believe a conference with Miami and Florida State could lose its swagger. The Hurricanes and Seminoles in their heydays practically invented the term.

But that's what has happened to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Virginia Tech gave the league's national reputation a boost with a much-needed BCS victory in January, the ACC's first win in the Bowl Championship Series in nearly a decade. And putting 10 teams into bowl games also gave the ACC a reason to gloat. No conference had ever done that.

'We were fortunate enough to go to two (BCS) bowls (but) the first two, we lost, so that basically was a letdown to us and to the ACC,' Virginia Tech tight end Greg Boone said. 'Last year, we redeemed ourselves.'

And the rest of the league, at least to some extent.

After Tech's face-saving victory over Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl, there's plenty for the league to like entering this season.

The loaded Hokies are favored to rule the ACC for the third straight year and are the closest thing the ACC has to a national championship contender.

Georgia Tech returns nearly every key member of its unique option offense that gave both the conference and rival Georgia fits. The Seminoles and Hurricanes, whose rivalry game has returned to Labor Day, insist they've taken steps toward returning their once-dominant programs to superiority. Wake Forest, North Carolina and N.C. State are primed to continue their recent upswings.

And if nothing else, the ACC's offenses should benefit from some experienced stars.

The league's rushing title could shape up as a two-man race between Clemson's C.J. Spiller and Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer, the ACC's reigning player of the year. And 11 of the 12 schools return a quarterback who has started at least one game under center, including N.C. State's Russell Wilson, the first freshman signal-caller to be named to the all-ACC first team.

Despite that, not everybody is convinced offense will dominate the league.

'With the amount of talent that comes back on offense, there's the same amount of talent that comes back on defense,' Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis said. 'Somehow, it's going to balance itself out.'

A capsule look at teams in predicted order of finish:

Coastal Division

VIRGINIA TECH - Key players: QB Tyrod Taylor, TE Greg Boone, FS Kam Chancellor, Sr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: TB Darren Evans, who ran for 1,265 yards last season, is done for the year because of a preseason knee injury. .... The Hokies' national title hopes will rise or fall dramatically in their season-opener against Alabama. ... Hokies don't play Florida State, Clemson or Wake Forest, and N.C. State comes to Blacksburg.

GEORGIA TECH - Key players: RB Jonathan Dwyer, QB Josh Nesbitt, WR Demaryius Thomas, S Morgan Burnett. Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense.

Notes: Dwyer is bidding to become the first two-time ACC player of the year since Florida State QB Charlie Ward in 1992-93. ... Yellow Jackets play five of seven games on the road from Sept. 17-Oct. 31.

NORTH CAROLINA - Key players: QB T.J. Yates, RB Shaun Draughn, S Deunta Williams, LB Quan Sturdivant. Returning starters: 6 offense, 9 defense.

Notes: Tar Heels need someone to step up and catch the ball, after three top receivers moved on. ... Biggest obstacle to school's first BCS appearance might be the schedule: Toughest two Coastal games (Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech) are on the road.

MIAMI - Key players: RB Graig Cooper, OT Jason Fox, K Matt Bosher, LB Sean Spence. Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense.

Notes: Jacory Harris takes over QB job on full-time basis after Robert Marve transferred to Purdue. ... Biggest offseason addition: Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, the QBs coach on the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers team that won the Super Bowl. ... Hurricanes haven't finished with double-digit wins in any season since joining the ACC.

VIRGINIA - Key players: QB Jameel Sewell, OT Will Barker, OT Will Barker, CB Ras-I Dowling. Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense.

Notes: Coach Al Groh added two former FBS head coaches to his staff, offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon (Bowling Green) and special teams coordinator Ron Prince (Kansas State). ... Sewell sat out last season because of academics. ... Cavaliers were one of two ACC teams left out of postseason in '08, joining Duke.

DUKE - Key players: QB Thaddeus Lewis, RB Re'Quan Boyette, DT Vince Oghobaase, DE Ayanga Okpokowuruk. Returning starters: 5 offense, 5 defense.

Notes: Lewis is 2,879 yards shy of the school's career record for passing yardage and has thrown for at least 2,100 yards in each of his first three seasons. ... Blue Devils will need seven wins to qualify for school's first bowl berth since 1994, because they play two FCS teams: Richmond and North Carolina Central.

Atlantic Division

FLORIDA STATE - Key players: QB Christian Ponder, OG Rodney Hudson, C Ryan McMahon, LB Dekoda Watson. Returning starters: 8 offense, 5 defense.

Notes: Tough schedule awaits Seminoles: Each of their 11 FCS opponents reached a bowl last season. ... Season could be determined by five-game stretch that includes visits from Georgia Tech and N.C. State and trips to North Carolina, Clemson and Wake Forest.

CLEMSON - Key players: RB/KR C.J. Spiller, WR Jacoby Ford, OL Thomas Austin, LB Brandon Maye. Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.

Notes: Coach Dabo Swinney figures to lean on Spiller until his young QBs gain experience. ... Reason for optimism in Death Valley: Five regulars return on the offensive line.

NORTH CAROLINA STATE - Key players: QB Russell Wilson, RB Jamelle Eugene, WR Owen Spencer, DE Willie Young. Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: Wilson, the 2008 ACC rookie of the year, has to work to keep his job from redshirt freshman Mike Glennon. ... Wolfpack have the talent to contend for a division title if they stay healthy; Wilson, Eugene and RB Toney Baker were among the key players who missed significant time last season.

WAKE FOREST - Key players: QB Riley Skinner, RB Kevin Harris, OT Chris DeGeare, DT Boo Robinson. Returning starters: 9 offense, 4 defense.

Notes: Skinner looking to become first QB to lead Demon Deacons to four straight bowl games. ... Another win against Florida State would put coach Jim Grobe in exclusive company as one of few coaches to beat Bobby Bowden four straight years.

MARYLAND - Key players: RB Da'Rel Scott, QB Chris Turner, WR Torrey Smith, P Travis Baltz. Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense.

Notes: Terps hope Smith can step in at receiver for first-round draft pick Darrius Heyward-Bey. ... Former UMass coach Don Brown, who takes over as defensive coordinator, has little experience to work with.

BOSTON COLLEGE - Key players: RB Montel Harris, OT Anthony Castonzo, DE Alex Albright. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.

Notes: Only ACC school to have no quarterbacks who have started at least one game. ... Defense will miss ACC defensive player of the year Mark Herzlich. The linebacker is sitting out this season to fight cancer.