- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Over the past four seasons, the ACC has produced more NFL first-round draft picks than any other college football conference in the country.
In 2006, ACC teams had 12 former players selected in the first round -- the most by one conference in NFL draft history -- and four of the top nine players selected in this year's draft were from ACC schools.
Up-and-coming NFL stars such as Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson (Georgia Tech), St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long (Virginia) and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (Boston College) all played for ACC teams.
Over the past four seasons, the ACC has sent 34 teams to postseason bowl games. Last season, an NCAA-record 10 ACC schools played in bowl games.
But when most college football fans discuss the best leagues in the country, the Big 12 and SEC are usually near the top of the list. The ACC typically isn't mentioned until the middle of the pack among Bowl Championship Series conferences, maybe even behind the Big Ten and Pac-10 and ahead of only the Big East.
It's an unfair assessment, according to ACC commissioner John Swofford.
"If you really step back and take a look at the conferences a year ago, top to bottom, we may have well been the deepest conference in the country," 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 our conference is perceived competitively, maybe more than it should."
ACC teams weren't even close to competing for a BCS national championship in 2008. Florida State was the only ACC team that didn't lose two games by the end of October, and then the Seminoles lost three of their final six games to finish 9-4. Every ACC team lost at least four games last season, and no ACC team was ranked higher than No. 14 in the USA Today coaches' Top 25 poll at the end of the 2008 season.
Georgia Tech was the highest-rated ACC team in the final BCS standings at No. 14.
"I think the league is getting beat up a lot because we haven't had a team go to the BCS Championship Game," Miami coach Randy Shannon said. "We always have somebody in the Orange Bowl, but never anybody in the [BCS] championship game."
Until last season, when ACC champion Virginia Tech beat Big East champion Cincinnati 20-7 in the FedEx Orange Bowl, ACC teams hadn't won a BCS bowl game since the 1999 season. ACC teams had lost in their previous eight BCS bowl game appearances, before the Hokies finally ended the drought last season.
Might this be the season the ACC finally arrives? Can ACC teams do what Big 12 teams did in 2008? Can they climb college football's steep ladder and finally get themselves in contention for a BCS national championship? Or will the ACC finally secure a BCS at-large bid and have two of its teams playing in BCS bowl games, a feat it has never accomplished before now?
"You sure hope so," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "It doesn't take but one team to do it. You just need one national championship contender to win a ballgame late in the year. We might have somebody this year; we might not."
Virginia Tech looked like the ACC team that might be able to contend for a BCS national championship in 2009. But then the Hokies lost star tailback Darren Evans to a torn ACL during the first week of preseason camp. With Evans sidelined for the season, quarterback Tyrod Taylor might have to carry an even bigger load.
With 18 starters coming back, Georgia Tech might be good enough to unseat Virginia Tech in the ACC's Coastal Division. The Yellow Jackets went 9-4 in coach Paul Johnson's first season in 2008, and were one of the country's most potent offenses running his triple-option, spread system. Georgia Tech will have to replace three very good defensive linemen, but plays many of its toughest foes at home.
Florida State is the favorite in the Atlantic Division, after winning more than eight games in a season for the first time since 2004. The Seminoles bring back 13 starters, but must replace most of their skill players on offense. NC State, which won its last four regular-season games in 2008, might be a dark horse pick to win the Atlantic Division.
One reason the ACC might be significantly better in 2009 is its teams' quarterback play. Every ACC team except Boston College and Clemson brings back its starting quarterback this season, and seven of the 10 starting quarterbacks coming back are upperclassmen.
"Our quarterback play in the ACC has maybe been lacking," Bowden said. "I know our [quarterback play] hasn't been very good. If you're going to compete for a national title, you better have a quarterback. You better have one like the kid at Texas, like the kid at Florida, or like the kid at Oklahoma."
Some ACC teams might be just beginning to reap the benefits of recent coaching changes. Butch Davis is about to begin his third season at North Carolina. Tom O'Brien and Shannon are starting their third seasons at NC State and Miami, too. Johnson and David Cutcliffe are about to begin their second seasons at Georgia Tech and Duke, respectively.
Duke, which used to be one of the worst Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country, went 4-8 in Cutcliffe's first season. The Blue Devils lost five games by 11 points or fewer.
"I feel like our conference should be pretty competitive," Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner said. "I've always felt it was one of the most competitive leagues in the country. There are really no pushovers and you've got to come to play every week."
Playing in college football's final game is the only thing keeping the ACC from joining the sport's heavyweights.
"We need to continue to build our programs, have a team or two involved in the championship race and win a game or two against other conferences," Swofford said. "I think when that happens, our league will get the respect it deserves."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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