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ACC's early darkhorse pick

There's always the potential for a surprise contender, a late-season push by an unheralded opponent (see: Duke, 2009).

The ACC race is so wide open this fall it wouldn't be a true surprise if any of the following teams won the conference title: Clemson, Boston College, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Miami or North Carolina.

So who would be a surprise, that darkhorse who creeps up on everyone?

My early pick is the North Carolina State Wolfpack. Here are three reasons why:

1. It's about time. Coach Tom O'Brien is due. He's entering his fourth season and hasn't been able to catch a break. Injuries or other setbacks prevented O'Brien from showing what he can do when he's got everything in place. O'Brien is a better coach than his 2-6 ACC record last year indicates, and wins over Pitt and UNC are proof. If everyone on this team can stay healthy and out of trouble, the Pack should be back in the postseason.

2. Russell Wilson should still be one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He completed 59.3 percent of his passes last year for 3,027 yards and a league-leading 31 touchdown passes. He finished 15th nationally in pass efficiency with a 147.77 rating. He also finished 19th nationally in total offense.

3. The defense will be better. Linebacker should be a strong position, especially with the return of Nate Irving, who had 80 tackles and four interceptions in 2008, and Audie Cole, who was NC State's leading tackler a year ago with 73. They'll be under the guidance of former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, who was hired to coach the linebackers. The secondary was young and ever-changing last year but should be better with the return of two starters in C.J. Wilson and Brandan Bishop. Four other defensive backs started last year.