The Atlantic Coast Conference finally is whole. An often cantankerous two-year struggle to expand ended earlier this summer when Boston College officially joined Miami and Virginia Tech as transplants from the Big East.

Now, let the games begin, and they won’t end until the first championship game Dec. 3 in Jacksonville, Fla.

“I think what we’ve been able to do together is to solidify the future of this league for years to come, with 12 institutions that fit very, very well and give us a great deal of strength in every way,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said.

“I think we’ll see that excitement throughout the regular season, because there’s more to play for in our league at this point in time than there ever has been before.”

The Hurricanes and the Hokies came aboard last season and immediately proved their worth, playing for the conference title on the last week of the regular season. Virginia Tech won that game for its eighth consecutive victory and completed a surprising run through the ACC.

Picked to finish sixth in what was an 11-team league, the Hokies gave coach Frank Beamer his third outright league championship in his 18 seasons in Blacksburg. They have 14 starters back in 2005 and another quarterback named Vick – Marcus Vick, Michael’s younger brother, returns after a one-year suspension for a variety of legal issues.

“Last year, we just had a group of players who came together and played as a team,” Beamer said. “Hopefully, this year’s team can do the same thing.”

Virginia Tech is favored to win the Coastal Division ahead of Miami, with Florida State the preseason pick by the media to come out on top of the Atlantic Division. Some confusion about the six-team groupings is sure to happen, since they aren’t divided geographically.

The ACC tried to come up with two equal divisions and started the process by separating longtime powers Florida State and Miami, then randomly selected from there. Each division has two of the North Carolina schools, and both Virginia and Virginia Tech are in the Coastal with the Hurricanes.

“I think it adds excitement to all of us,” North Carolina State coach Chuck Amato said. “All of us are dreamers. None of us have lost a game yet.”

But there already have been losses. The Seminoles had dominated the conference since becoming a member in 1992, finishing with at least a share of the crown in 11 of the first 12 years. They finished a game behind Virginia Tech a year ago, but equaling that effort might be difficult in 2005.

So far in the offseason, Florida State has lost cornerback Antonio Cromartie (knee injury) and quarterback Wyatt Sexton (Lyme disease) for the season. Linebackers Ernie Sims and A.J. Nicholson both had run-ins with police over the summer, but coach Bobby Bowden plans to keep both in the lineup for the Sept. 5 season opener against Miami

Another offseason casualty was defensive lineman Clifton Dickson, who was declared academically ineligible and must graduate from a community college before he can be readmitted to the university.

The Hurricanes likely feel the same way. Three losses down the stretch – including a shocking upset by North Carolina – left them two games behind Virginia Tech in a tie for third.

It was a surprising result for a team used to battling for the national championship, and getting back on top is the challenge facing coach Larry Coker.

Capsule look at ACC in predicted order of finish


FLORIDA STATE – Who replaces Sexton? Freshmen Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee are battling for the spot, and no one has pulled ahead yet. … TBs Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker combined for 1,936 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2004.

BOSTON COLLEGE – The new kid on the block in the ACC, the Eagles have eight returning starters on defense, led by DE Mathias Kiwanuka. He was the preseason pick for conference player of the year. … QB Quinton Porter is likely to regain the top spot on the depth chart after losing it to Paul Peterson late in 2003.

N.C. STATE – The Wolfpack led Division I-A in total defense last year, and even though only six starters return, four of them are on the line. DEs Mario Williams and Manny Lawson might be the best tandem in the nation. … QB Jay Davis had his ups-and-downs in replacing Philip Rivers, but he threw for 2,104 yards.

CLEMSON – Coach Tommy Bowden revamped his coaching staff in the offseason, hiring offensive coordinator Rob Spence from Toledo and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning from Troy. … QB Charlie Whitehurst regressed as a junior, completing 51 percent of his passes with 17 interceptions.

MARYLAND – After winning at least 10 games in his first three seasons, coach Ralph Friedgen fell to 5-6 in 2004, mostly because of offensive ineptitude. … For now, Sam Hollenbach is the quarterback. He was a fourth-stringer before last season but jumped ahead of holdovers Joel Statham and Jordan Steffy.

WAKE FOREST – TB Chris Barclay sits out the opener against Vanderbilt because he violated unspecified team rules, but when he returns, expect him to challenge for the ACC rushing title. In 2004, he became the first player in school history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. … Six of Demon Deacons’ seven losses a year ago were by a combined 36 points.


VIRGINIA TECH – QB Marcus Vick takes over for Bryan Randall, and the Hokies just might be better off because of it. … Three players who made first team all-conference last season return, the most in the ACC: LB Darryl Tapp, CB Jimmy Williams and K Brandon Pace. … The offense has eight starters back.

MIAMI – With Brock Berlin gone, “Quarterback U” turns to sophomore Kyle Wright, who threw only nine passes last season. … Wright has plenty of help, led by WRs Ryan Moore, Sinorice Moss and Lance Leggett and TE Greg Olsen. … The defense should be dominating, with 10 starters returning.

VIRGINIA – Coach Al Groh was rewarded him with a new contract that will pay him $1.7 million a year through 2010. That’s a raise of nearly $1 million. … In a year when several teams are searching for a quarterback, Groh has one of the top returnees in Marques Hagans. He led the ACC by completing 63 percent of his passes in 2004 while rushing for 394 yards.

GEORGIA TECH – WR Calvin Johnson broke all the school’s freshman receiving records with 48 catches for 837 yards and seven touchdowns. … QB Reggie Ball probably is going to continue throwing to Johnson despite a rocky season. He threw 18 interceptions in 04. … Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta should again come up with enough tricks to stifle opponents.

NORTH CAROLINA – Speaking of defense, the Tar Heels sure could use some. They ranked 109th in NCAA Division I-A. … QB Matt Baker replaces four-year starter Darian Durant, who left with about four dozen school records. … TB Barrington Edwards, a transfer from LSU, should begin the season as the starter.

DUKE – The Blue Devils are slowly getting more competitive, and coach Ted Roof continues to bring in some surprisingly talented recruits. This year’s best is Vince Oghobaase, a 6-foot-6, 335-pound defensive tackle who picked the Blue Devils over perennial national title contenders Miami and Oklahoma, among others.

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