Someday, Tommy Bowden says, the fortunes of the Atlantic Coast Conference are going to change.
The Clemson coach is acutely aware of the perceptions about the ACC, a league whose members have lost their last eight appearances in Bowl Championship Series games, haven't boasted a national champion since Florida State in 1999 and tend to struggle against squads from power conferences.
And he doesn't let it bother him one bit.
``Things go in cycles. And this'll go in cycles. It's just a matter of time,'' Bowden said. ``College football's too competitive and there's too many good coaches, I think, for one league or one team to be dominant.''
His Tigers might be the ones to change that cycle.
For the first time since 1991, Clemson is the favorite to win the ACC title, even though there's no shortage of contenders.
Florida State and Miami, the perennial league benchmarks, are coming off struggles and might not be ready to reclaim past glory quite yet. Defending champion Virginia Tech is talented, yet has numerous holes to fill. Wake Forest has experience and skill, yet was no match for Clemson a year ago. Georgia Tech is installing new coach Paul Johnson's triple option attack and North Carolina hasn't occupied one of the ACC's top two spots since 1997.
So everything points to Clemson - and the Tigers insist they're finally poised to break through.
``I think if we don't make it to the ACC championship, we let some people down,'' Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper said.
Thing is, with Clemson's penchant for failing to live up to advanced billing, expectations are high almost everywhere in the ACC. Miami believes this will be a bounce-back year, as does Florida State. North Carolina, with as much talent as perhaps any team in the league, could be on the cusp of a breakthrough.
And then there's defending champion Virginia Tech, which always finds a way to get into the title mix.
``I was surprised that we would be picked to be at the top of our division, to be quite honest with you,'' said Hokies coach Frank Beamer, who had eight players drafted off last year's team, which fell in the Orange Bowl to Kansas. ``I think everybody on our side has a chance.''
A capsule look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Atlantic Division
CLEMSON - Key players: QB Cullen Harper, Sr.; RB C.J. Spiller, Jr.; RB James Davis, Sr.; S Michael Hamlin, Sr. Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: The consensus pick to win the ACC doesn't have to face Virginia Tech, North Carolina or Miami this season - but visits Wake Forest on Oct. 9 in the game that could decide the Atlantic title. ... Much offensive talent returns, but everything hinges on the offensive line, which lost almost everyone from '07.
WAKE FOREST - Key players: QB Riley Skinner, Jr.; RB Josh Adams, So.; LB Aaron Curry, Jr.; CB Alphonso Harris, Sr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: Skinner, Curry and the Demon Deacons won't surprise anyone this year, the way they did two years ago on their stirring run to the ACC title. ... Perhaps the most defensive depth in the ACC, and Sam Swank should be the best kicker in the conference.
FLORIDA STATE - Key players: QB Drew Weatherford, Sr.; RB Antone Smith, Sr.; DE Everette Brown, Jr.; S Myron Rolle, Jr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Bobby Bowden's farewell season? Maybe so, especially if the Seminoles go 7-6 again. ... Early season suspensions will be tempered by soft schedule, but unless Weatherford plays consistently and Smith becomes the star he's long been touted to be, it could be another angst-filled year in Tallahassee.
MARYLAND - Key players: WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jr.; LB Dave Philistin, Sr.; LB Moise Fokou, Sr. Returning starters: 9 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Terps have best offensive line in the ACC and have most of the offensive starters back from '07, when inconsistency doomed chances. ... Maryland beat Rutgers and outscored Boston College in a shootout in '07, but losing TBs Lance Ball and Keon Lattimore (combined 25 TDs) could be tough to overcome.
BOSTON COLLEGE - Key players: DT Ron Brace, Sr.; LB Brian Toal, Sr.; LB Mark Herzlich, Jr.; TE Ryan Purvis, Sr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: In the unenviable situation of trying to replace QB Matt Ryan, but the Eagles' defense gets a huge boost with Toal returning from injury. ... Defending Atlantic Division champions will be led by strong defense in '08, a unit that was the second-best nationally against the run in '07.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE - Key players: TB Jamelle Eugene, Jr.; TE Anthony Hill, Jr.; DE Willie Young, Jr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: Finished strongly in Tom O'Brien's first season with Wolfpack and looking to carry that momentum over. ... Most of the offensive skill players are back, but the defense - which lost seven starters - will need an overhaul. ... Visits to South Carolina and Clemson in season's first three weeks will set the tone.
Coastal Division
VIRGINIA TECH - Key players: QB Sean Glennon, Jr.; QB Tyrod Taylor, Soph.; DE Orion Martin, Sr.; CB Victor Harris, Sr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: QBs Glennon and Taylor both played huge roles last season, but Beamer isn't sold on a two-quarterback system, so one may have to emerge. ... Another trip to the title game is no lock, given this road schedule: The Hokies travel to North Carolina, Boston College, Florida State and Miami. They also play at Nebraska in a juicy nonconference game.
MIAMI - Key players: RB Graig Cooper, So.; LT Jason Fox, Jr.; LB Colin McCarthy, Jr.; DE Eric Moncur, Sr. Returning starters: 4 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: The Hurricanes have lacked go-to skill players in recent years, but with RBs Cooper and Javarris James both back and healthy, some pressure will be taken off whichever of Miami's three freshman QBs gets the call. ... Defensive line depth is a question.
NORTH CAROLINA - Key players: QB T.J. Yates, So.; WR Hakeem Nicks, Jr.; S Trimane Goddard, Sr.; S Deunta Williams, So. Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: Maybe the biggest enigma in the ACC, with almost all of last season's key players back. As such, Heels are the ACC's most popular sleeper pick. ... Heels went 4-8 last season, losing six of those games by a TD or less. ... Biggest hole to fill? Might be kicker, where Connor Barth excelled for four years.
GEORGIA TECH - Key players: OT Andrew Gardner, Sr.; RB Jonathon Dwyer, So.; DT Vance Walker, Sr.; DT Darryl Richard, Sr. Returning starters: 4 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: Paul Johnson's triple-option almost always works, yet he'll likely need more than one offseason to get it integrated at Tech. ... Both lines are strong and rank among league's best, so there's hope. ... ACC slate opens at Chestnut Hill and Blacksburg.
VIRGINIA - Key players: TB Cedric Peerman, Sr.; Mikell Simpson, Jr.; LB Clint Sintim, Sr.; LB Jon Copper, Sr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Sintim and Copper lead one of league's best LB corps. ... Cavs coming off best season since 2002, and open against Southern California. ... Passing game the biggest question, so running backs will absolutely have to set the tone.
DUKE - Key players: QB Thaddeus Lewis, Jr.; WR Eron Riley, Sr.; DT Vince Oghobaase, Jr. Returning starters: 7 offense, 10 defense.
Notes: New coach David Cutcliffe has 51 returnees, including Lewis, who has folks in Durham believing the best QB on campus isn't hoops point guard Greg Paulus - a high school star in Syracuse. ... Riley is a big-play threat, but Cutcliffe will need more than one offseason to turn Duke around.

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