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January 18, 2011

ACC: Rough start, end to 2010

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The 2010 season didn't start or end well for the ACC.

Virginia Tech kicked off the season with a heartbreaking loss to Boise State and followed that up by falling to FCS program James Madison. Mass suspensions prevented North Carolina from living up to its preseason buzz. The ACC went 4-5 in bowls and continued its misery in BCS games.

But the league also delivered some big wins along the way.

Virginia Tech bounced back from its slow start to win 11 consecutive games and capture the ACC title before falling to Stanford in the Orange Bowl. Florida State ended its six-game losing streak to in-state rival Florida and showed signs that it's on the way to regaining its status as a national contender. Maryland staged one of the nation's biggest turnarounds by improving from 2-10 in 2009 to 9-4 this season. Boston College followed up a five-game losing streak by winning five in a row.

The ACC media correctly predicted Virginia Tech's conference title and Florida State's Atlantic Division crown before the season, but the league otherwise delivered plenty of surprises.

Maryland and N.C. State exceeded most preseason forecasts, while Miami and Clemson fell short of expectations. One year after winning the ACC title, Georgia Tech finished below .500. And in perhaps the biggest stunner of all, Maryland's Ralph Friedgen was fired less than a month after being named the ACC coach of the year.

Here's a recap of the highs and lows from the ACC's 2010 season.

Biggest surprise: Maryland. Picked to finish last in the Atlantic Division after going 2-10 last season, the Terrapins instead went 9-4 and trounced East Carolina in the Military Bowl. Maryland thrived thanks to the emergence of ACC freshman of the year Danny O'Brien at quarterback, the big-play ability of WR Torrey Smith and the steadiness of LB Alex Wujciak and FS Kenny Tate. The most improved team in the ACC produced an even bigger surprise at the end of the regular season when Ralph Friedgen was fired shortly after being named the league's coach of the year. New coach Randy Edsall has a hard act to follow.

Biggest disappointment: Miami. We just as easily could have picked either of the two division winners from 2009. One year after they produced the most exciting ACC championship game ever, Georgia Tech and Clemson each finished 6-7. But we expected each of those two teams to take a step back this season, though we never envisioned losing seasons for them. We were more surprised by Miami's late-season fade. The Hurricanes opened the season ranked 13th in each of the two major polls. They finished 7-6, lost their last three games and fired coach Randy Shannon at the end of the regular season. New coach Al Golden's biggest order of business is to fix Miami's quarterback problems after Jacory Harris and Stephen Morris combined to throw 24 interceptions in 2010.

Best postseason performance: Florida State. The ACC always loves to win head-to-head showdowns with the SEC. Florida State's 26-17 victory over South Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Bowl was particularly sweet for the ACC because it matched division winners from each conference. South Carolina fans can argue that the result might have been different if star RB Marcus Lattimore hadn't been injured early in the game, but it's worth noting that Florida State played the majority of the game without starting QB Christian Ponder.

Worst postseason performance: Virginia Tech. The Hokies' 40-12 Orange Bowl loss to Stanford underscored a couple of dubious statistics for both the ACC and its premier program. The ACC's record in BCS games fell to 2-11, while Virginia Tech dropped to 1-27 against top-five opponents. The recent struggles of Florida State (until this season) and Miami have indeed made Virginia Tech the class of the ACC during the expansion era. But as well as the Hokies have performed during the regular season, their struggles in BCS games have made the entire conference look bad. Not many people expected Virginia Tech to beat Stanford, but the Hokies at least needed to put up more of a fight. They instead were outscored 27-0 in the second half.

Underclassmen turning pro early: Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers, Georgia Tech OT Nick Claytor, Virginia Tech RB Darren Evans, Clemson RB Jamie Harper, Miami CB Brandon Harris, Clemson QB Kyle Parker*, Virginia DE Zane Parr, Maryland WR Torrey Smith, Georgia Tech S Jerrard Tarrant, Virginia Tech RB Ryan Williams.(NOTE: * - Parker is giving up football to concentrate on his pro baseball career. North Carolina State QB Russell Wilson also is a pro baseball player, but he hasn't indicated whether he plans to give up his last year of football eligibility to focus on baseball.)

Next season's breakout offensive player: Virginia Tech RB David Wilson. Although he received limited playing time, Wilson rushed for 619 yards this season and scored the winning touchdown against Georgia Tech with a 90-yard kickoff return. Now that Darren Evans and Ryan Williams have decided to enter the NFL draft, Wilson heads into the 2011 season as Virginia Tech's feature back. Don't be surprised if he emerges as one of the ACC's top rushers.

Next season's breakout defensive player: Florida State LB Christian Jones. This former five-star prospect didn't put up huge numbers as a freshman backup, but he performed well in practice and won raves for his long-range potential. He should move into the starting lineup and emerge as one of his team's top defenders as the Seminoles attempt to replace departed LBs Mister Alexander and Kendall Smith.

Player most on the spot: Clemson QB Tajh Boyd. The front-runner to take over as Clemson's No. 1 quarterback, Boyd will enter his first full season as a starter attempting to improve the job security of embattled coach Dabo Swinney's job while also adjusting to new offensive coordinator Chad Morris (from Tulsa). That's quite a burden for any college quarterback, even one as talented as this former Rivals 100 prospect.

Next season's division champions: Florida State and Virginia Tech. We expect a rematch in the ACC championship game with a different result. North Carolina State could be dangerous in the Atlantic Division if Wilson returns to school, but the Seminoles still have too much firepower. And even though the Hokies must replace quite a bit of talent in the offensive backfield, they have enough strength everywhere else to win the Coastal again.

National title contenders: Florida State? We put a question mark here because we're not quite sure the Seminoles are ready to make that big a jump. QB E.J. Manuel is entering his first full year as a starter, and the departures of Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon give the Seminoles two large holes to fill on the offensive line. FSU definitely looks like the class of the ACC, but that doesn't mean the Seminoles are national title contenders just yet. Virginia Tech's 2007 team is the only ACC squad since 2001 that has even come close to contending for a national championship. Our best guess is that Florida State wins the ACC title but stumbles a couple of times along the way to finish out of the national championship race.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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