Tommy Bowden was asked yesterday about the numerous imposing defenses in the ACC and the Clemson coach suddenly had a revelation. His Tigers aren't the only team struggling to score points or hold onto the football this season.

"That makes me feel better," Bowden said.

The revamped ACC was supposed to be the league of points and playmakers this season. Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was considered one of the nation's top passers. Florida State had an offense that many within the program compared to its prolific 1999 attack. Maryland had its usual 1,200-page offensive playbook. And Miami was Miami, as usual.

Yet, through four weeks, the ACC has proven to be the league of denial. North Carolina State leads the nation in total defense and passing defense. In all, five conference teams -- including Miami (third), Florida State (fourth), Virginia (11th) and Virginia Tech (15th) -- rank among the nation's top 15 in total defense.

"You come into the league and say this is a big offensive league," said Miami Coach Larry Coker, whose team is playing its first season in the ACC. "And then all these defenses are dominating."

The league ebbs and flows in cycles, said Wake Forest Coach Jim Grobe, adding that "defenses are maybe a little more experienced and ahead of the offenses now."

Perhaps the biggest surprise has been N.C. State, which is holding opponents to 165.3 yards per game, 25 yards fewer than Wisconsin, the nation's second-best defense.

The Wolfpack returned nine starters from a defense that ranked 89th nationally last year in total defense. The defense is not just better; it's dominant. N.C. State had 18 tackles behind the line of scrimmage against Virginia Tech and, through three games, has let opponents complete only 41.9 percent of their pass attempts.

Grobe, whose team will face the Wolfpack in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, likened Coach Chuck Amato's defense to Florida State's, which has been physical and swarming for years. Regarding N.C. State's defense, Grobe said, "A lot of these guys who were pretty light up front have put on weight and are stronger."

Don't Count on It

Florida State quarterback Chris Rix will miss a game because of injury for the first time in his career Saturday, when the Seminoles host North Carolina. And it is uncertain whether the senior will regain his job once he returns in no sooner than two weeks from a high ankle sprain.

Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden, asked if Rix would retain the starting job once healthy, said, "It will be determined." He added: "It'll be a judgment call when he gets back. I haven't been faced with that in a long time."

Rix, seemingly blessed with enormous physical gifts, hasn't performed up to the standards of many Florida State fans. Rix, who suffered the injury in Saturday's 41-22 victory over Clemson, ranks last in the conference in pass efficiency and passing yards per game.

Wyatt Sexton, the sophomore who threw for 162 yards and a touchdown against Clemson, will start against North Carolina.

A Cause for Concern

No conference team has endured a tougher start than Clemson, which has 14 turnovers through four games, tied for last in the nation. Tommy Bowden made a handful of phone calls this week to colleagues such as Southern California Coach Pete Carroll, Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops and Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr to ask if there are any new drills teams are using to cut down on turnovers.

"Just wanted to see if there was anything we were missing," Bowden said. "Had we eliminated half of them, we'd be 3-1."

There have been other problems, too. After dropping no passes in the first game against Wake Forest, Clemson (1-3) has dropped 12 in its last three games, all losses. Whitehurst, a preseason Heisman Trophy hopeful, is second to last in the ACC is pass efficiency.

Bowden said the junior has pressed too hard at times, adding, "He's trying to be as good as all the newspapers said he was."

A Good Day's Work

Clemson's Justin Miller set an NCAA record with 282 yards on six kickoff returns, including touchdown returns of 97 and 86 yards, in the loss to Florida State. . . .

Maryland's Steve Suter needs only four yards to become the ACC's career leader in punt return yardage. . . .

Coker is concerned about playing a Georgia Tech team that had an open date last weekend after its 34-13 loss to North Carolina. "Anytime you have an open date, especially after a loss," Coker said, "you tend to coach a little harder. You're a little angry." . . .

North Carolina's players held a meeting Monday to discuss the team's struggles after its 34-0 loss to Louisville on Saturday. "There are a lot of kids who were embarrassed by the way we played offense," Coach John Bunting said. "On offense, we should be able to score points, and I'm shocked we did not score any."

Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who started the season riding high amid Heisman trophy talk, is second to last in passing efficiency in ACC.