CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) - Things are finally looking up for the Atlantic Coast Conference with a league-record five football teams ranked 20th or higher in the preseason poll and some traditional powers poised for breakout years.
Or maybe it's merely another chance for the beaten-down conference to disappoint.
The ACC is at a crossroads.
The league is in great position to generate some positive buzz about its football prowess. However, to start changing the perception that it is nowhere near as tough as the Southeastern Conference, Big 12, Pac-10 or Big Ten, the ACC needs to get off to a fast start.
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer says the ACC is legit.
"I think the league is for real. I think the coaching, the play, it's for real," said Beamer, who's Hokies are No. 10 in the preseason poll. "If we play enough games, I think we'll win our share. ... You don't base a league particularly on one ball game or a couple of ball games. I think you base a league over a period of time, but I don't think there's any question the ACC's for real.
"It's a very competitive, very good football league."
Beamer is right, there seems to be no shortage of ACC teams capable of competing on the national stage _ at least on paper.
"We're all starting to get a lot of big games starting off early, in the beginning of the year," North Carolina linebacker Bruce Carter said. "I think our conference is rising, and guys are starting to rise to the occasion.
"It gives us a chance to say we can compete with anybody in the country, rather than just playing ACC contenders throughout the season."
Maybe, but one bad weekend will generate more of that "same old ACC" chatter.
To avoid that, ACC teams need to win more than a few of those early interconference matchups, beginning with the Top 25 matchups between No. 18 North Carolina and No. 21 LSU on Saturday in Atlanta and Monday when Virginia Tech meets No. 3 Boise State.
It won't be easy. It hardly ever is for ACC teams.
The Tar Heels have been dealing with the distraction of an NCAA investigation: A dual-pronged investigation into possible improprieties concerning agent-player benefits and potential academic misconduct. Then, key defensive tackle Marvin Austin was suspended indefinitely for violating undisclosed team rules.
In the coming weeks, nearly every ACC team plays a marquee matchup against a big-name nonconference opponent, from Miami vs. Ohio State to Duke vs. Alabama. But if North Carolina and Virginia Tech can't set a strong tone early, the big games that follow might wind up being viewed as less attractive merely by association.
Perhaps that's one reason why Maryland quarterback Jamarr Robinson is pulling hard for the Hokies. "I feel like they're an extension of us," he said.
Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder feels the same way.
"There's always an argument over what conference is the best in the nation. Every year is a different year, and there's been the argument the ACC hasn't been as strong as the SEC and the Big 12," said Ponder, whose Seminoles visit Oklahoma next week. "That's a big thing for us. It is important for all of us to be able to compete outside our league and play well."
The ACC's perception seems to suffer most when standard-bearers Miami and Florida State are considered to be down. That's what happened in 2006, when the Hurricanes and Seminoles took a step backwards, allowing Wake Forest to win its only championship since 1970. There were justifiable questions about strength of the ACC last year.
Perennially lowly Duke entered November with a chance to win the Coastal Division. The same Blue Devil team that opened 2009 with a loss to a Championship Subdivision team, Richmond.
The ACC can't afford any more of those early slip-ups and there are several potential potholes this week with Presbyterian-Wake Forest, Elon-Duke and Richmond-Virginia among the eight matchups with FCS teams.
But not all of the coaches take the ACC talk seriously.
"I know that North Carolina and LSU are playing here and Virginia Tech and Boise State are playing. What else are the spotlight games? Maryland and Navy, I guess," Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson, the former Midshipmen coach, said laughing.
"It's big up there. State championship."
All joking aside, early losses to those lower-level schools would raise serious questions about the depth of a league that is seeking respect.
Since the BCS was formed in 1998, the ACC is a combined 2-10 in those games _ the worst among leagues with automatic access to the big-money bowls. The ACC has only one major bowl victory since the 2000 season. By comparison, Boise State needed just four years to rack up that many wins in the BCS.
"A lot of people don't give the ACC much credit in football, always saying it's a basketball conference and the SEC is the dominant conference," North Carolina tight end Zack Pianalto said. "So to be able to get a chance to go out there against LSU and show what we have is something we're really excited for.
"Obviously the Boise State-Virginia Tech thing is on the same level. If Virginia Tech can go out there and do something well ... that just speaks volumes about where this conference is heading in football."
AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill; Hank Kurz Jr. in Blacksburg, Va.; Charles Odum in Atlanta; David Ginsburg in College Park, Md.; and Associated Press Writer Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.