When the Clemson Tigers walked out of the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, having won a national championship by defeating Nebraska, Atlantic Coast Conference football had reached a new level of national respectability.

"It's the best thing that ever happened to our conference," said Kelvin Bryant, North Carolina's tailback and a contender for the Heisman Trophy. "It proved that the ACC is not only a basketball conference. It feels good going into this season knowing that an ACC team won a national championship."

The ACC probably isn't the best conference in the nation; that distinction should probably go to the Pacific-10, Big Eight or Southeastern Conference. But Clemson and North Carolina must be considered among the nation's top 10. And the Tar Heels could seriously challenge for the national championship.

ACC schools have been criticized for having easy schedules. But this year, Maryland has the sixth most difficult schedule in the nation, Clemson begins defending its championship by visiting the Georgia Bulldogs, and North Carolina opens at Pittsburgh.

North Carolina (10-2, 5-1 in the ACC last year) is almost everybody's choice to win the conference title. "We should definitely win the ACC," said Bryant, who pointed out that the Tar Heels return nine players each on offense and defense with starting experience. Carolina had the 11th-ranked offense in the last year even though Bryant, now a senior, missed 22 of 44 quarters.

"With Kelvin Bryant healthy, Carolina should not lose a game," said Duke Coach Red Wilson. Despite missing half the season with a knee injury, Bryant gained 1,015 yards and scored 18 touchdowns. Bryant, who before the injury was faster than Herschel Walker, says the knee feels fine.

Other pluses for the Tar Heels are Rod Elkins, a good passing quarterback who was also injured part of last season, backup tailback Tyrone Anthony and a superb defensive line. The only problem besides slight inexperience at linebacker could be the kicking game, where Jeff Hayes, the place-kicker/punter for the last four years, will be missed.

Clemson (12-0, 6-0) will find it tough to match last year's success because that team was built largely around seniors, especially the offensive line. "We lost our two starting tackles and our center," said Clemson Coach Danny Ford, who at 33 became the youngest coach to win a national championship. "Rebuilding the offensive line is going to be our biggest problem."

The Tigers also lost five starters from the second-best defensive team in the nation. The offensive backfield doesn't have a breakaway threat like Carolina's Bryant, but Cliff Austin, Jeff McCall and Chuck McSwain, who combined for 2,000 yards last season, all return. And, of course, Homer Jordan, the deceptive quarterback who passes and runs with equal dexterity, produces more big plays that anyone in the league except Bryant.

Maryland (4-6-1, 4-2) and North Carolina State should contest for third place in the conference, even though State's quarterback situation has been unstable. The Terrapins, under new Coach Bobby Ross, should get a lot of mileage out of their rushing defense and quarterback Boomer Esiason. With a revamped passing game that has the receivers and tight ends actually catching the football instead of primarily blocking, Maryland looks to be a bit stronger than the Wolfpack.

N.C. State (4-7, 2-4) has the second-best tailback in the league, Joe McIntosh, a sophomore. The defense and special teams should be good enough to enable the Wolfpack to hold off Duke (6-5, 3-3), which lost several of its best players, but does get another season from quarterback Ben Bennett.

Wake Forest (4-7, 1-5) has Gary Schofield, the best passer in the league, but it doesn't have much else. The Deacons will again be an exciting team offensively, with Schofield (2,500 yards passing last year) throwing 40 times per game. The defensive returns nine starters, which in this case, is nothing for Coach Al Groh to cheer about.

Virginia (1-10, 0-6) has a new coach -- George Welsh, formerly of Navy -- and a lot of hard work ahead. (2,500 yards passing last year) throwing 40 times per game. The defensive returns nine starters, which in this case, is nothing for Coach Al Groh to cheer about.

Virginia (1-10, 0-6) has a new coach -- George Welsh, formerly of Navy -- and a lot of hard work ahead.