Experienced Tigers expected to rise above the pack

When ranking the ACC teams, three tiers are easily distinguishable. Clemson clearly leads the group. The middle of the pack must expand to accommodate 10 of the 12 teams. And then there's Duke, which remains, well, Duke.

The Tigers have, arguably, the most pieces in place to reach the ACC title game in Tampa and win it -- so long as they figure out how to come through in the fourth quarter of close games. Defending league champ Virginia Tech had a mass exodus of talented seniors and "little" Wake Forest is quietly becoming one of the conference's most consistent teams. Meanwhile, Miami and Florida State are pushing to regain respect. Here's an early preview of how the jumbled ACC might eventually shake out:

1. Clemson Tigers

What we know: Just about everyone -- 18 of 24 starters, including both specialists -- are back from last season's 9-4 squad.
What we don't know: How the offensive line will fare with three new starters.
How the Tigers can get to Tampa: Win the close ones.

2. Virginia Tech Hokies

What we know: The Hokies will have an experienced offensive line, running back and two quarterbacks to choose from.
What we don't know: How Virginia Tech is going to compensate for the loss of 21 players who comprised the winningest senior class in school history.
How the Hokies can get to Tampa: Road wins at Miami, Florida State and Boston College.

3. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

What we know: Nine starters are back on defense, including the entire secondary and every linebackers.
What we don't know: The Demon Deacons lost two assistant coaches for the first time in Jim Grobe's tenure, but they were replaced with veteran assistants who have worked under Grobe before.
How the Demon Deacons can get to Tampa: Cut down on turnovers and continue to score ridiculous amounts of non-offensive touchdowns.

4. Florida State Seminoles

What we know: The Seminoles have a favorable schedule, but FSU must navigate its first three games with a roster limited by player suspensions.
What we don't know: How the Seminoles will react to the suspensions and fare without roughly eight impact players for the first three games.
How the Seminoles can get to Tampa: The running game has to improve as does the secondary, where Tony Carter didn't have the season the staff had been hoping for. Pat Robinson had been coming on, but he is one of the suspended players.

5. Miami Hurricanes

What we know: Randy Shannon and his staff brought in a boatload of talented recruits, and nine of them are already on campus for spring practice.
What we don't know: If the recruits can help immediately.
How the Hurricanes can get to Tampa: Find consistency at quarterback and winning more than two league games this season would be a good start.

6. Maryland Terrapins

What we know: The Terps have a quarterback with starting experience in Chris Turner.
What we don't know: How the players will adapt to the offensive scheme under first-year coordinator James Franklin, and how the receivers will take to their new coach.
How the Terps can get to Tampa: Starting the conference schedule with a win at Clemson is a good beginning, and beating Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on a Thursday night would do wonders to help close out the schedule strong.

7. Boston College Eagles

What we know: The Eagles will need all the senior help they can get, and former starters Brian Toal (linebacker) and defensive tackle B.J. Raji will bring that on the defensive side.
What we don't know: How good Jeff Jagodzinski will look without inheriting oodles of Tom O'Brien's talent.
How the Eagles can get to Tampa: Start with finding a quarterback, a running back and a few guys to block for them.

8. Virginia Cavaliers

What we know: Chris Long is gone.
What we don't know: Who the quarterback will be.
How the Cavaliers can get to Tampa: A lot of last year's luck.

9. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

What we know: Paul Johnson will bring a new option offense and Dave Wommack will spice things up on defense.
What we don't know: Who the quarterback will be.
How the Yellow Jackets can get to Tampa: Reschedule. Johnson's first league game is at Boston College, followed by a road trip to defending champ Virginia Tech. Go ahead and throw a visit to Clemson in there. Not the easiest ACC welcome for Johnson, huh?

10. NC State Wolfpack

What we know: Having Toney Baker and Jamelle Eugene in the backfield together should help take some pressure off the quarterback.
What we don't know: Who the quarterback will be.
How the Wolfpack can get to Tampa: Buy tickets.

11. North Carolina Tar Heels

What we know: Quarterback T.J. Yates and receiver Hakeem Nicks should be one of the more productive combos in the league.
What we don't know: How the defense will fare under first-year coordinator Everett Withers.
How the Tar Heels can get to Tampa: Hope a North Carolina city hosts the ACC championship game in a few years.

12. Duke Blue Devils

What we know: The Blue Devils will have an experienced quarterback and a new coach with a reputation for developing them.
What we don't know: How the program will respond to an overhaul of the entire staff, and how quickly it might pay off.
How the Blue Devils can get to Tampa: The 11 other ACC schools are placed on probation by the NCAA.

Heather Dinich is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at espn.hd@hotmail.com.