For years, Atlantic Coast Conference football served two purposes: It gave students at seven schools a place to drink Saturday afternoons and provided patsies for the nation's powerhouses.

Slowly, things changed. It started with Bill Dooley at North Carolina. Then came Lou Holtz at North Carolina State and Jerry Claiborne at Maryland. And last year a new hero emerged: Charley Pell.

Charley who?

Charley Pell. He was thrust into the Clemson coaching job in 1977 when his friend and boss, Red Parker, was fired following a 3-6-2 season. Pell took over a team that had been consistent in only one aspect: it had been dissensionriddled since the early '70s.

Sixth place, the experts said. Maybe even Virginia could finish ahead of the Tigers.

Not quite. Under Pell, the Tigers, always talented, meshed. Most important, quarterback Steve Fuller, all potential and little production for two years, came into his own.

When the season ended, Clemson had finished 8-3-1, gone to its first bowl game (Gator) in 19 years, and scared the life out of eventual national champion Notre Dame before losing, 21-17.

Now the Tigers, who return most of their starters including ACC Player of the Year-Fuller, will enter the 1978 season as favorites for the conference title.

Maryland and N.C. State are experienced but not at quarterback. North Carolina has lost the heart of the defense that produced the ACC title last year, and it has lost Dooley.

Duke has a fine quarterback in Mike Dunn but little else. And Wake Forest and Virginia are assured only of finishing in the top seven in the league.

A brief rundown of the teams, excluding local teams Maryland and Virginia:

CLEMSON -- As Fuller goes, so go the Tigers. Last season the option quarterback totaled more than 2,000 yards rushing and passing. Outstanding in the clutch, he drove the club 80 yards in two minutes in the last regular-season game, pulling out a win against South Carolina and nailing down the bowl bid.

Fuller will miss his best receiver, Jerry Butler, but Clemson has an outstanding corps of running backs. And with three super quick linebackers, the Tigers should not give up many points.

NORTH CAROLINA -- New Coach Dick Crum comes from a succesful program at Miami of Ohio but will be hard-pressed to match Bill Dooley's final 8-3-1 season.

The Tar Heels won games last year by smothering opposing offenses. Their defense gave up 7.4 points a game, least in the country.

But most of the line that keyed that defense, including All-America Dee Hardison, has graduated. The Carolina defense should be good, but not like '77.

The offense will ride on the arm of quarterback Matt Kupec and the legs of Amos Lawrence, who broke rushing records a year ago, picking up 1,210 yards.

N.C. STATE -- Johnny Evans was Mr. Do-Everything for Coach Bo Rein last year, running, throwing and punting the Wolfpack to an 8-4 record. But he is gone. Ted Brown, perhaps the most underrated running back in the country with three straight 1,000-yard seasons, is back.

The Wolfpack traditionally finishes well and that should be the case this year. Juniors Scott Smith and John Isley, with about zero experience between them, will battle for Evans' quarterback job. If the winner produces even a fair passing game, State will come on strong.

DUKE -- A lot of people were surprised when Coach Mike McGee was rehired after a seven-year record of 33-40-4. But new Athletic Director Tom Butters blamed murderous schedules and poor athletic administration and McGee got a new three-year contract.

McGee faces another difficult schedule -- Georgia Tech, South Carolina and Michigan for starters, and Tennessee later. But McGee has a major asset: Dunn. The 6-foot-4 senior signal-caller does everything for the Devils, but often that is not enough.

If linebackeer Carl McGee recovers from 1977 injuries and returns to his all-conference form of two years ago, the defense will improve. But Duke will rise or fall with Dunn.

WAKE FOREST -- The Deacons started last year with high hopes after an encouraging 5-6 record in 1976. Chuck Mills appeared to have almost completed his rebuilding job.

But the whole thing collapsed. The Deacs even suffered the humiliation of a second straight loss to Virginia on their way to a 1-10 season.

Mills, hero in '76, was fired in '77.Now John Mackovic, a 34-year-old-Wake Alumnus, will try. James McDougald should gain a lot of ground, but a win over Virginia would be a major triumph.