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Florida State looks strong

8/16/2004

ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit breaks down the ACC and gives his picks for winners, awards and more:

And the winner is ... Florida State

The Seminoles lost more games over the last three years (12) than they had in the previous eight (11) and the cynics are questioning whether Bobby Bowden can still lead a team to a championship season. But after the struggles of the last three seasons he is out to prove he can and this year is loaded with the kind of speed we're used to seeing at FSU. And he also has Chris Rix, who is entering his fourth year as the starting quarterback.

But I wouldn't be surprised if ... Clemson won. Many feel Virginia is the best sleeper pick in the ACC, but I'll pass on the Cavaliers in favor of Clemson. The Tigers have perhaps the most physically talented QB in the league in junior Charlie Whitehurst and plenty of other talent that should allow them to compete, but a road schedule that includes trips to Florida State (Sept. 25), Virginia (Oct. 7) and Miami (Nov. 6) could prevent Tommy Bowden's club from winning the conference.

ACC Most Valuable Player: Chris Rix, QB, Florida State
He has three years' starting experience, both good and bad, but this should be the year Rix finally gets in the right frame of mind and does not feel he has to make a big play on every snap. Decision-making has been a problem for Rix in the past and his ability to improve in that area will ultimately determine whether he can utilize the speed and weapons at his disposal this season.

Most Important Player: Brock Berlin, QB, Miami
Berlin went through some difficulties last season in his first year as the starter, throwing 17 interceptions against only 12 touchdown passes and putting the Hurricanes in the unfamiliar position of climbing out of holes. If Berlin can correct that and avoid big mistakes, Miami could easily be the team to beat in the ACC.

Coach of the Year: Bobby Bowden, Florida State
At 74 years old and with a team that has been up and down in recent seasons, some wonder if Bowden can still get it done. With a loaded roster including Rix, running backs Lorenzo Booker and Leon Washington and linebackers A.J. Nicholson and Ernie Sims, this should be the year Bowden gets the Seminoles back on the right track.

Assistant You Should Know: Dan Werner, Miami offensive coordinator
Werner was the quarterbacks coach last year but has added offensive coordinator to his title after the departure of Rob Chudzinski to the Cleveland Browns. Werner's biggest challenge will be to get some balance back into the Miami offense, which became predictable last year because of the early departure of running back Willis McGahee and the inconsistency of Brock Berlin. It's up to Werner to get back to a versatile attack that will keep opposing defenses guessing.

Player I'd pay to watch: D'Qwell Jackson, LB, Maryland
It would be easy to say Lorenzo Booker, Charlie Whitehurst or NC State running back T.A. McLendon. But Jackson's emotion and passion are awesome to watch. He stepped in for the departed E.J. Henderson last year and the Maryland defense did not miss a beat thanks to Jackson's tenacity and the love for the game he displays on every snap. He makes it easier to appreciate all the great players on the defensive side of the ball in the ACC.

Toughest Place to play: Lane Stadium, Virginia Tech
The Orange Bowl is the toughest when Florida State comes to Miami, but if Frank Beamer and the Hokies can make a quick turnaround after last year's late struggles then Lane Stadium takes the honors, especially at night.

Game of the Year: Florida State at Miami, Sept. 6
It's unfortunate that such an important game is being played the first week of the season, but in my opinion the winner of this one will not only be the ACC champion but also make it back to the Orange Bowl for the national championship game. That's a lot on the line for Week 1.

ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit co-hosts College GameDay and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.