College football coaches love to talk about balance: The great balance an opponent has; the great balance a running back has and, most important, the great balance within their conference from top to bottom.

Atlantic Coast Conference coaches are no different. But this year -- for once -- when they talk about balance in the ACC, they aren't just blowing smoke.

Last year, six ACC teams finished with winning records and that easily could happen again this season. What's more, even though North Carolina and Maryland are the favorites, Clemson, Virginia, Wake Forest and defending champion N.C. State are capable, with a little luck, of finishing at or near the top.

Only Georgia Tech, which isn't eligible for the league title until 1983, and Duke, which is awful, can be counted out of the league race.

Here is a rundown of the teams in the league in their predicted order of finish:

North Carolina: The Tar Heels were 8-3-1 last season, including a Gator Bowl victory over Michigan and the only triumph anyone got all year over Pittsburgh. That's the good news. The bad news was conference losses to Maryland, Wake Forest and Clemson which put them fifth in the league, and an embarrassing tie with East Carolina.

With the likes of Steve Streater and Lawrence Taylor on defense; runningbacks Amos Lawrence (three 1,000-yard seasons), and Billy Johnson on offense, and tremendous depth, this could be a Top Ten team.

The biggest question mark is at quarterback, especially after Chuck Sharpe, the starter, injured his knee two weeks ago and is now out for the year. And the coach, Dick Crum, is so conservative he makes Jerry Claiborne look like Don Coryell.

Maryland: The Terps were 7-4 a year ago, missing a bowl bid for the first time in seven seasons while finishing tied for second at 4-2 in the conference. t

They can play with anyone at the running back spots, receiver positions and on defense. In Dale Castro, they also have perhaps the best placekicker in the country.

The question marks are the offensive line and quarterback. Four starting offensive linemen must be replaced. Quarterback Mike Tice came on at the end of last season but still has soemthing to prove.

Claiborne could help Tice considerably by letting him throw more often on first down than last year but if history is a gauge, he'll probably hand the ball to superb tailback Charlie Wysocki (1,140 yeards in 1979) at least 35 times a game.

Clemson: The Tigers, 8-4 last season and 4-2 in conference play, were hit hard by graduation on both sides of the ball, losing defensive end Jim Stuckey, linebacker Bubba Brown, and tailback Lester Brown, each on someone's All-America team.

But they have had two excellent recruiting years since Danny Ford became coach and should reap some of those benefits this season. They also have Obed Ariri, capable of making a field goal from anywhere south of the D.C. line, back for one more season. The Tigers get North Carolina at home in Death Valley. An upset there is far from impossible.

Virginia: No one is laughing at Virginia anymore.

Entering his fifth season, Coach Dick Bestwick has already worked wonders, the Cavaliers going 6-5 last season for only their second winning season in 27. They were 2-4 in conference play, the losses being by three, four, ten and ten points.

Bestwick has almost everybody back, led by running backs Tommy Vigorito and Greg Taylor -- who has been moved to wide receiver -- and Robinson High School graduate Todd Kirtley, who made a huge difference at quarterback a year ago.

UVA still isn't going to blow anyone away but Bestwick has made this a solid, respectable program. Potentially, he now has the players to compete with anyone in the conference.

Wake Forest: Coach John Mackovic, who took over a floundereing 1-10 program, led the Deacons to an 8-4 mark and a Tangerine Bowl bid in his second season last year, the biggest surprise in the country.

Again, this year, with the passing combination of quarterback Jay Venuto and wide receiver Wayne Baumgardner back, the Deacs will compete.

How well they will compete is a question mark. Unlike Bestwick, who could not succeed until the program was virtually rid of the past regime's players, Mackovic was left with some solid talent by predecessor Chuck Mills. Two of those top players, nose guard James Parker and running back James McDougald, are gone.

Mackovic's own recruiting skill will be tested this season.

N.C. State: How do you pick a defending league champion sixth? With great difficulty. Last year's team was 7-4, 5-1 for the ACC title, under the late Bo Rein. With quarterback Scott Smith and Outland Trophy winner Jim Ritcher gone from the offense and Woodrow Wilson gone from the defense, the 'Pack may be a tad weaker than last year.

And, in this league, that can make the difference between first and sixth, especially with a rookie coach, Monte Kiffin, learning the ropes.

Duke: Blue Devid fans have a favorite joke this fall: When he was hired as coach prior to last season, Red Wilson guaranteed seven victories. But, Duke people point out, he didn't say how many years it would take him to get the seven wins.

Wilson has a long way to go coming off last season's 2-8-1 debut, which included an 0-6 conference record (the first time ever Duke was winless and last in the ACC); and debacles like a 27-0 loss to Maryland and a 35-0 loss to South Carolina.

If anything, the Blue Devils may be worse this season. They are touting freshman quarterback Ben Bennett as the future savior -- which he may be -- but no one is around to save them this year. There is some solid junior talent, especially on defense, but Duke simply doesn't have what it takes to make it in this league this year.

Wilson won't get his seven victories this season either. In fact, three would be a moral victory.

Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets, who aren't eligible for the league title, have a new coach, Bill Curry, and an excellent junior quarterback in Mike Kelley. They should improve on last season's 4-6-1 mark.