It isn't difficult to settle on one theme for this season's Atlantic Coast Conference preview: transition.

Even at Maryland, where virtually every position is set with a veteran starter, the highly regarded Terrapins will try to make the transition from good to great. Several other ACC teams are entering major transitional seasons that not only could significantly juggle the standings but have a lasting effect on those programs.

Virginia, Clemson, Georgia Tech and North Carolina are so hard to separate that it's nearly impossible to figure which will finish a probable second to Maryland, likely to win the league title for the third consecutive year.

"Based on what they have coming back and what they did the last 10 games of last season (9-1), you'd have to make Maryland the favorite, far and away," North Carolina Coach Dick Crum said recently.

Being in transition is nothing new to Virginia (8-2-2 last year, 3-1-2 in the ACC for second place). But the Cavaliers are attempting to make the progression from first-time winners to a program consistently in or near the top 20.

The Cavaliers' backfield of quarterback Don Majkowski and runners Howard Petty, Barry Word and Antonio Rice could be as good as Maryland's. But only four defensive starters return. And, as Coach George Welsh said, "Our program is not a feeder system yet. It's not where we can just reload year after year. We need a couple of more years before we see what level we can consistently reach."

It's a little amazing that Virginia, which lost to Clemson by a score of 55-0 in last season's opener, could be favored to finish ahead of the Tigers this season.

Clemson (7-4 last year, ineligible for the ACC title) appears to be quite a way from its 1981 national championship form as it tries to make success out of the transition from a team stockpiled with talent to one affected by the punitive measures of a three-year probation.

Clemson has only 10 seniors and only five have started. But the Tigers will have three veteran backs -- Terrence Flagler, Kenny Flowers and Stacey Driver -- and a bunch of redshirt freshmen who reportedly comprise the school's best single recruiting class.

North Carolina not only has to rebound from a relatively poor season (5-5-1, 3-2-1), but its offense is in total transition. The Tar Heels ran nearly 70 percent of the time last year, but now will attempt the kind of balance Maryland has found successful.

Georgia Tech (6-4, 2-2-1) is in much the same position as Virginia. The Yellow Jackets had their best season in a decade last year, but will try to improve without tailback Robert Lavette. The offense will have to depend more on quarterback John Dewberry, and the defense has nine starters.

"Last year I made a bold prediction: that Georgia Tech would win the ACC championship. I did not say which sport," Coach Bill Curry said, referring to Tech's titles in basketball, golf and baseball.

Whether Wake Forest can remain better than .500 (6-5, 3-3) depends on whether the defense improves a fifth straight year. If so, the Deacons look like they have enough offense to make a push for the top echelon.

The ACC has three teams with running backs far above average: Maryland, Virginia and Clemson. But statistically, Wake Forest's Michael Ramseur and Topper Clemons, who together rushed more than 1,700 yards last season, make up the league's best running back tag team.

North Carolina State (3-8, 1-5) finds its defense in transition. Again, Maryland is the model. Wolfpack Coach Tom Reed, disgusted with a team last in the league in rushing defense and total defense, has installed the wide-tackle six, which Maryland has used for 14 years.

And Duke, besides giving the conference another great running back -- Julius Grantham, who may be the best, individually, of all -- will have trouble improving on last year's record (2-9, 1-5). Coach Steve Sloan will find out if it's a blessingor a curse to have back eight starters from a defensive unit that allowed 27 points per game.

Maryland, Clemson, Viginia, Georgia Tech and North Carolina -- maybe even Wake Forest -- could receive bowl bids by winning enough nonconferene games. And the ACC, certaily prideful of its basketball, may be taking a similar direction in football.