While the addition of Virginia Tech and Miami makes the ACC arguably the strongest football conference in the country, most feel the league race is only a two-team duel.

In fact, Seminoles linebacker A.J. Nicholson, asked whether the season-opening Miami-Florida State game will decide the ACC title, said: "Yup, it will. And it's going to decide the bigger picture," meaning a Bowl Championship Series berth.

The conference's media members at the ACC Kickoff gathering at the Grandover Resort agreed, voting Florida State as the preseason favorite, followed by the Hurricanes. The Florida schools received all but three first-place votes.

The arrival of Miami and Virginia Tech in the new 11-team ACC comes a year after the contentious process ensued to lure the two, as well as Boston College, away from the Big East Conference. Once the Eagles join the ACC next season, the conference will be complete and stage a lucrative championship game.

For the rest of this year's league, the one positive about Miami hosting Florida State on Sept. 6 is that one of those teams will get a loss. An ultra-competitive ACC means "you can win the conference and not win 10 games," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said.

"For every team here," Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer said, "I think it got tougher to win the national championship. It got tougher to win the conference. . . . Every [coach's] job got tougher in that regard."

Both Florida State (Chris Rix) and Miami (Brock Berlin) are quarterbacked by seniors who have been maligned because of inconsistency during their careers. But three contending teams need to replace quarterbacks altogether after the departure of the league's top three passers from a year ago.

Maryland, looking for its fourth consecutive 10-win season, will most likely turn to sophomore Joel Statham to run its complex offense. Statham emerged as the favorite through spring practice but struggled in the spring game. Freshman Jordan Steffy, however, will get a serious look to steward a young Terps team.

Friedgen said this could be his most athletic Maryland team, but he wishes it were a year or two older.

Virginia, on the other hand, returns 15 starters but not quarterback Matt Schaub, who was adept at confounding defenses with short passes to running backs or tight ends. Junior Marques Hagans is mobile at 5 feet 10 -- he also returned punts and played some wide receiver -- and has Heath Miller, generally considered the nation's best tight end, at his disposal.

How to replace Philip Rivers will be Coach Chuck Amato's challenge at North Carolina State. Rivers threw 34 touchdown passes last season and led near upsets at Ohio State and Florida State.

Virginia Tech not only dealt with off-the-field incidents this offseason -- quarterback Marcus Vick was suspended indefinitely after being charged with reckless driving and possession of marijuana -- but also reduced expectations. The Hokies were picked to finish sixth after losing four of their last five games in 2003.

"There is a sense of urgency at our place, a real focus," Beamer said. "We know what it's like to be around the top and right now we're not there."

Beamer said the ACC affiliation already has had a positive impact on recruiting. The Hokies will be able to lure more talent out of Florida, Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden said, and Miami will have even more recruiting success along the East Coast.

One thing that won't change is the intensity between the two teams at the top.

"I don't think it will change anything" in the rivalry, Berlin said. "Every time we play each other, it's a war."