Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- During a group photo shoot for the players on Sunday at the ACC Football Kickoff, Clemson bandit end Ricky Sapp asked Virginia Tech tight end Greg Boone what it felt like to wear his ACC championship ring -- the third one. Boone's bling was impossible to miss.
"He said it felt good," Sapp said, almost wistfully.
Clemson, the team that at this time a year ago was expected to be a formidable opponent for Alabama and cruise through the ACC to make some noise on the national level, has officially switched places with the Hokies, who now bear the brunt of the league's expectations.
Clemson, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Georgia Tech -- quite frankly, nobody around here seems to care much who it is, just as long as somebody in the ACC is a legitimate national title contender. It's exactly what this conference needs to give its reputation a boost.
An NCAA-record 10 ACC teams were bowl eligible in a crazy, competitive and unpredictable 2008 season, and the conference took a step forward in polishing its image. There is still plenty of progress yet to be made, though, said ACC commissioner John Swofford, who added the ACC has "unlimited potential."
"I think if you really step back and take a look at the conferences a year ago, top to bottom, we may well have been the deepest conference in the country a year ago," Swofford said. "What we didn't have is a team or two involved in the national championship race down the stretch. I think that has a lot to do with how a conference is perceived competitively, maybe more than it should. But the fact of the matter is it does have a lot to do with that."
Swofford said that once teams are involved in the national championship race and win certain games outside the conference, "then I think that our league will receive the kind of respect it deserves."
The Hokies are the front-runners to win the Coastal Division title, and should be a preseason top-10 team, but it's not as if they're strangers to the top of the BCS standings. Boone remembers what was lost in 2007 when the Hokies were humiliated 48-7 at LSU. That season, the Tigers bumped Virginia Tech to No. 3 in the final BCS standings.
Can Virginia Tech be the team the conference can depend on?
"We have been that team," Boone said, "we just didn't win the games we should have."
Of course, Virginia Tech isn't the only team with the hope -- or the potential -- to make a splash on the national stage. In fact, the Hokies are going to have a difficult time getting through their conference schedule unscathed, let alone the lone nonconference schedule in the league that doesn't include an FCS team. It's the parity in the ACC, the players say, that makes title talk so difficult.
"I think that's why the ACC is so competitive -- because everybody wants to take that role and become that leader of the pack," said Miami offensive tackle Jason Fox. "I think we're really close. [The freshmen] have had a year under their belt, we have a great senior class, great senior leadership, and we've got two great coordinators. ... We're getting all the pieces together."
It's a rebuilding challenge both Miami and Florida State are facing simultaneously, and many say it's the resurrection of those two programs alone that can make the difference.
"For the ACC to really be a top-tier conference, there needs to be some people fighting for that national championship and being top five," said FSU quarterback Christian Ponder. "But the problem is, the ACC is so competitive and the ACC is also known for great defenses, so it's hard to really get up there. But I think we're close. There's a bunch of good teams this year that are getting better, getting up to that top tier, so we'll see. Florida State has a lot of potential. Virginia Tech should be ranked high up there. There's a lot of potential in the conference."
The question is when that potential will be realized.
North Carolina coach Butch Davis has told his players that they should want to play "when the blimp is in the sky," meaning it's a nationally televised game that holds postseason consequences. UNC defensive end E.J. Wilson said the Tar Heels are building the program into a national contender, but in order for the league to be taken seriously, they've got to have some company.
"I do agree with that because you have the Pac-10, who has USC, which is competing for a national championship almost every year, then you have the SEC, and they have four or five teams every year that's competing for it," said Wilson. "So in order for us to get talked about in the same respect with those conferences and be mentioned in the same breath with those, we have to have a few teams -- not just one team -- consistently every year competing for the national championship. We need to get more teams that can actually be successfully on the national level and not just around here."