The Washington Times - August 9, 2011, 11:38PM

The ACC completed just one of the last 12 seasons with two top-10 teams – when Virginia Tech and Boston College checked in at No. 9 and No. 10, respectively, in 2007.

So is the prospect of the league matching that feat pure provincialism? Not exactly.

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(At this point, it’s worth noting only two ACC teams cracked the top 30 of the countdown).

One of the ACC’s elite is one of the nation’s most consistent programs, ranking between No. 7 and No. 19 in each of the last seven years. The other has rediscovered the fastest route back to elite status is to amass a ton of talent. Both plans work.

But which is more promising for 2011? Read on. …

10. FLORIDA STATE

Does a 10-win season mean Florida State is back? That depends on what “back” means.

If Seminoles fans think the days of marauding to 14 straight top-five finishes in the AP poll will be revived, they’d be wise to think again. That sort of decade-plus run seems unlikely to be duplicated anytime soon.

But if back means contending for ACC titles annually, checking in somewhere around the top 10 in most seasons and piecing together a credible national title threat a few times a decade, then back the Seminoles are.

It didn’t take long, really. Remember two years ago when Florida State’s defense was a laughably feeble bunch? No longer. Florida State won’t remind anyone of the halcyon teams from the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it will still stop plenty of foes.

As for the offense, there are no shortage of E.J. Manuel believers, and his gaudy completion percentage in two seasons of spot starts is evidence both of his own abilities and that of the Seminole staff to maximize results with a backup quarterback when needed.

The real story with the Florida State resurgence, as D1scourse friend Tomahawk Nation so often points out, is that it becomes massively more difficult for anyone other than Clemson to win the Atlantic Division when the Seminoles are operating anywhere close to an optimal level. No one can argue with a straight face that happened in Tallahassee between 2001 and 2009.

The resource divide – between availability and proximity of talent, revenue, fan support, appeal to recruits, etc. – between Florida State and the likes of Boston College, Maryland, N.C. State and Wake Forest is vast. Sure, the Seminoles could lose to those schools even if they’re near their peak, but it surely wouldn’t be a frequent occurrence.

(Clemson, meanwhile, can come close to matching Florida State’s resources. It just hasn’t operated near an optimal level in the last two decades outside of the first two months of the 2000 season).

Florida State won its first division crown since 2005 last year. While it would be shocking if another one didn’t arrive this fall (especially with Duke and Virginia as two of the cross-divisional games), the presence of Oklahoma on the schedule and the nagging sense there’s no way to tell if the Seminoles will beat everyone they probably should tempers the expectations here more than other places. Still, a top-10 finish would be progress in Jimbo Fisher’s second season.

9. NEBRASKA

Welcome to the Big Ten, where the Cornhuskers’ feeble passing attack will fit right in with Purdue and Illinois.

In all seriousness, Nebraska steps in as an almost immediate favorite in the Legends Division. Michigan State is due a regression. Michigan is transitioning through a coaching change. Iowa lost a ton of talent. Northwestern, while better than many think, still has a bit of a ceiling. And Minnesota, well, the less said, the better.

If there’s one thing coach Bo Pelini knows about (besides defense), it’s beating up on divisional foes. Nebraska was 13-2 against the Big 12 North under Pelini, falling only to a top-five Missouri outfit in 2008 and then a bizarre 9-7 setback to Iowa State in 2009.

That loss – during which the Cyclones managed only 239 yards – said plenty about the Huskers’ shortcomings of late (and the subsequent Big 12 title game loss to Texas, owners of a whopping 202 total yards, reinforced it). The offense was better, but still prone to extended absences in 2010 (such as against Texas and the Holiday Bowl against Washington).

Just how much better the offense is will dictate how much closer Nebraska comes to recapturing its old glory this season. It spent much of the second half of 2009 unranked despite having the best player in college football playing defensive tackle. And it dropped four of its last nine a year ago, despite holding every team it lost to below 24 points.

The Huskers drew the short straw in the cross-divisional schedule, with Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State all on tap in year one in the Big Ten. Still, Nebraska should roll to a division title … and maybe this year, they’ll score just enough in a conference championship game to snag a BCS bid.

8. ARKANSAS

He might be humorless, uninterested in tolerating electronic media wearing apparel with the logo of a conference rival and completely dull. He might also be best known to the masses for his less-than-ideal escape from coaching the Atlanta Falcons.

But if there’s a game to be won against a clearly inferior team, Bobby Petrino might be the best man to coach it.

NOTABLE COACHES W-L IN GAMES AS A RANKED TEAM AGAINST UNRANKED FOES, 2003-2010

Mark Richt: 38-1 (.974)

Bobby Petrino: 32-2 (.941)
Jim Tressel (pre-vacated wins): 55-4 (.932)
Nick Saban: 38-3 (.927)
Mack Brown: 61-6 (.910)
Les Miles: 47-5 (.904)

Bob Stoops: 53-6 (.898)
Urban Meyer:
55-7 (.887)
Pete Carroll:
52-7 (.881)
Frank Beamer: 45-9 (.833)

The hypothesis going into this chart worked out almost perfectly; Richt, who lost six games to unranked opponents while his own Georgia outfits were unranked the last two years, was a frankly unexpected blip.

But the point remains. Petrino’s history is such that he beats just about everyone he encounters that he’s supposed to beat. In his three years at Arkansas, the Razorbacks are 17-2 as a favorite – and 15-0 when favored by at least a field goal.

Well, the Hogs will be favored a lot this year. Probably not at Alabama and Louisiana State, mind you, but probably in just about every other game. The talent influx over the last few years is certainly strong enough to turn those situations into wins.

Arkansas lost a star under center in Ryan Mallett, and Tyler Wilson will be under scrutiny throughout the season to replicate his predecessor’s feats. Nonetheless, he has a coach likely to put him in position to succeed. But like his coach, Wilson will probably be judged heavily on how he does against Alabama and Louisiana State.

7. WISCONSIN

Well, Badgers fans, your team has opted to play Let’s Make A Deal: Quarterback Edition.

Last year, two notable teams went through this routine. Auburn opted for Door No. 1 (the junior college option) and came out with Cam Newton and a national title. Mississippi opted for Door No. 2 (the clearly troubled talent) and wound up with Jeremiah Masoli and an Orgeron-like 4-8.

Wisconsin probably took the middle road between the team, snagging former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson as a midsummer transfer. Wilson isn’t as magnificently talented as Newton (no shame in that) but the closest thing to baggage he brings was an eagerness to pursue professional baseball while testing the indulgence of a coach with a military background.

Wilson’s arrival in Madison immediately elevated the Badgers to division favorites, though Ohio State’s offseason turbulence already put them in solid shape. Wisconsin returns a 1,000-yard rusher and another guy who nearly got there, and it does an exceptional job of following the same brute-strength plan year after year after year.

Toss in Wilson, a shifty athlete who threw nearly three times as many touchdowns (76) as interceptions (26) in three years in Raleigh, and the Badgers have a chance to be every bit as good on offense.

Wilson won’t turn Wisconsin into a national title contender in the manner Newton did. No matter. He’ll still be plenty effective, and could wind up hauling home the conference crown he couldn’t snag during his days at N.C. State.

6. VIRGINIA TECH

A few reasons to be high on the Hokies …

* A nonconference schedule devoid of a game Virginia Tech has any reason beyond coaching paranoia to feel uncomfortable about.

* Playing three of their four conference road games against the three ACC schools that didn’t make a bowl game last year.

* The return of every significant wide receiver to help new quarterback Logan Thomas‘ adjustment period.

* The absence of Florida State from the regular-season schedule.

* An extra five days to prepare for the annual date with ever-pesky Georgia Tech.

The main reason not to be optimistic about Virginia Tech’s chances is the annual early loss the Hokies seem to incur. For five years running and six of their seven years in the ACC, the Hokies lost once before September was through. November, though, was a different story.

VIRGINIA TECH MONTH-BY-MONTH, 2004-2010

August: 0-2 (.000)
September: 23-6 (.793)
October: 19-6 (.760)
November: 24-2 (.923)
December: 5-2 (.714)
January: 2-3 (.400)

Oh, and two of the Hokies’ four toughest tests – Georgia Tech and North Carolina – come in November.

The Hokies’ penchant for early losses probably has some fans steeling themselves against predictions of the sort included in the next sentence. But Virginia Tech is talented enough, is consistently coached well enough and has a friendly enough schedule  to believe it has a shot to be the team facing the SEC champion in the national title game in January.

Patrick Stevens