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Seminoles remain at head of ACC class

Here's a shocker: Florida State's football team is favored to win the ACC.

So it's not actually surprising at all. Nor should it be. The Seminoles, who are ranked as the nation's preseason No. 1, are the winningest Division I-A program of the decade, posting a record of 95-15-1. Since joining the Conference in 1990, the 'Noles have yet to finish out of first place.

But make no mistake, FSU has more than the ACC title on its mind. Despite compiling nearly 100 wins in the '90s, Florida State has only one of what it craves most--a national title.

The Seminoles are ready to change that this season. They return 18 starters from last year's runner-up squad that lost to Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl, 23-16.

The key for the Seminoles lies with the quarterback. Chris Weinke, last season's starter, returns from spinal surgery to lead the offense.

The biggest questions are whether Weinke can remain healthy and return to his impressive form from a year ago. Before suffering a season-ending injury against Virginia last season, Weinke had run his string of passes without an interception to 218.

On the receiving end of many of those passes was junior receiver Peter Warrick, who turned down the NFL to return for his senior season. Warrick hauled in 61 receptions last year and scored 12 touchdowns. Warrick's lightning quick speed and great hands in addition to his special team's explosiveness have him ranked among the early Heisman hopefuls.

FSU's stiffest challenge may come from Atlanta. Georgia Tech shared the ACC Championship with the Seminoles last year and nine starters are back on offense.

Returning All-ACC quarterback Joe Hamilton headlines the Jacket offense. He cranked out 2,166 yards passing in '98 while throwing for 17 touchdowns.

The question mark for the Yellow Jackets is on the defensive side of the ball. Only five starters return from a year ago. Several newcomers will have to make larger contributions if Tech plans to dethrone the 'Noles.

Lurking in the wings with the capability of bursting both Florida State's and Georgia Tech's bubble is Virginia. The Cavaliers were picked to finish third in the ACC at the annual ACC Football Kickoff, but a successful start could make or break the young Cavs.

Virginia opens the season with North Carolina and Clemson on the road. If Coach George Welsh's troops can find a way to win both of those games, the Cavaliers could roll until October when they play Virginia Tech, Florida State and Georgia Tech.

Pre-season All-American tailback Thomas Jones will carry the bulk of the offensive load, but the looming question for the Cavs remains the passing game. Dan Ellis, the projected starter at QB, will have to prove he can play with the ACC's overwhelming defenses in his face and someone needs to step up from the receiving corps.

North Carolina and N.C. State figure to press the ACC's top three from a year ago. UNC looks to sophomore Ronald Curry to run the show in Chapel Hill. Curry's diversity is his biggest asset--he can not only throw the football effectively, but he totaled 419 yards rushing last year as the backup quarterback.

But the Heels need someone else to carry the football as well. Rufus Brown returns as the starting tailback, but his numbers must improve. Brown suffered a knee injury last season, limiting his production to a mere 534 yards and three touchdowns.

The Tar Heels' neighbors from Raleigh also figure to challenge for a spot in the Conference's top three. The Wolfpack returns seven offensive starters, led by quarterback Jamie Barnette. The senior signal caller tossed 18 TDs last year while compiling 3,169 yards passing.

However, Barnette must find a new target this season. Consensus All-America receiver Torry Holt has moved on to the NFL and a new wideout must step up.

The most likely candidate is returning receiver Chris Coleman. He pulled down 52 receptions last year for 876 yards as the secondary receiving option. Coleman also scored five touchdowns.

The rest of the ACC seems to be in a logjam at the bottom of the standings. Wake Forest and Clemson should come home in the middle, with Duke and Maryland fighting to stay out of the cellar.

Newly hired Clemson coach Tommy Bowden brings an all-to-familiar name to the ACC. Bowden is the son of FSU's Bobby Bowden and comes to the Tigers after running a successful program at Tulane. Last year the Green Wave finished with a perfect 11-0 record.

Things in Death Valley will be much more difficult for Bowden. The Tigers finished 3-8 last year at the bottom of the Conference.

The Demon Deacons look to replace three-year starting quarterback Brian Kuklick, but it's still unclear who the No. 1 guy will be. Ben Sankey was Kuklick's backup, but incoming freshman C.J. Leak is expected to challenge from the first day of practice.

In Durham, the most exciting thing about football seems to be the kicking game. Placekicker Sims Lenhardt converted 16-of-22 field goals a year ago and punter Brian Morton averaged 40.4 yards-per-kick.

As for Maryland, coach Ron Vanderlinden continues to try to rebuild the Terps. Tailback LaMont Jordan is the best player for Maryland and he will need to carry the Terrapins if they expect to jump to the middle of the ACC pack.