The battle for the Atlantic Coast Conference begins long before actual games start. It begins on the recruiting trail, and it's not just the best teams that are competing for the top recruits.
The ACC is composed of topnotch talent across the board and every team in the league is capable of beating any other. So, a school's standings in the conference -- and in some cases, tournament berths -- can come down to any player from the starting lineup to the bench.
After touching on the top teams in the ACC last month, here's a look at the teams vying to break into the upper echelon and the new players they're hoping can help them do just that:
Right now, the Tigers teeter on the line between ACC elite and best of the rest. Their incoming class could make all the difference. The team finished fifth in the conference in 2006, going 3-3-2 (13-5-2 overall), and then advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing to national runner-up UCLA. Four of the team's seniors have since signed with professional teams -- highlighted by Dane Richards being drafted by the New York Red Bulls. Phil Marfuggi was picked up by New England in the MLS supplemental draft, while Frederico Moojen and Alan O'Hara are playing in the USL.
A top-10 team last season, Clemson has added seven new players to its roster to help fill those spots and add depth. With the departures of key players, these newcomers should have the chance to make an impact right away.
The Tigers appear to have scoured the Eastern Seaboard effectively, signing players from Florida up through New York. Eric Cava (Annapolis, Md.), Tommy Drake (Chapel Hill, N.C.) and John Tardy (Staten Island, N.Y.) lead the group when it comes to accolades. All three have state or regional ODP level experience and a number of All-American credentials between them. They also appear to be a somewhat versatile trio, with Cava and Drake listed as forward/midfielders and Tardy with the defender/midfielder distinction.
Midfielder Keegan Priest, goalkeeper JD Spearman and midfielder/forward Tyler Williams round out the class.
The Eagles have a huge hole to fill after Charlie Davies decided to go pro. One of the top players in the nation last season, the junior forward signed with Hammarby of Sweden's Premier Division. Davies had become the face of the BC program and will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace in 2007.
Still, coach Ed Kelly and his staff knew this was coming. After all, there was speculation that Davies might not be returning following his sophomore season. Now, whether they were able to bring in a player, or more likely players, to take up this load is going to be the question.
Nothing has been officially released by the school, and early reports are that BC has signed just one player to a national letter of intent. However, the incoming class could actually be sizable with five or six other freshmen committed to join the team -- although they're not signed to binding letters. Time will tell what kind of skills these new players possess, but that can't be too reassuring for BC fans who realize the team, now without its star, is in serious need.
The Tar Heels who take the field this season could be a completely different team from the one that finished seventh in the ACC in 2006, as UNC has signed eight players.
Cameron Brown (Garland, Texas) headlines the group. He is one of the top recruits in the nation and was recognized as an NSCAA and Parade All-American while playing for the elite Solar Soccer Club. The midfielder has a proven ability to score, finishing as the career points leader with Solar (154 goals and 275 assists) and posting equally impressive numbers at the high school level (27 goals and 25 assists in 37 games).
Fellow NSCAA All-American Brett King will join Brown as will a pair of goalkeepers in Tyler Deric (one of 50 players to watch according to TopDrawer Soccer) and Stephen Twilley. Coach Elmar Bolowich is also bringing on board Daniel Choi out of South Korea.
Three of the Tar Heels' newest faces have already arrived on campus. Incoming freshmen Ryley Leech and Drew McKinney along with transfer David Adeleye, formerly of Davidson College, are training with the team this spring.
Coach Oliver Weiss has signed six out-of-state players for the 2007 campaign.
Though the Hokies have not attracted the number of well-decorated recruits some of their conference opponents have, Weiss feels these players have the ability to take this program to the next level.
Max Allen, out of Wayne, Pa., is a versatile player -- listed as a forward/midfielder/defender. There is also already proven chemistry between Allen and fellow recruit James Shupp, as the two have been club teammates.
Clarke Bentley, Craig Burnell, Brent Hooper and Chris Kaufman will round out the group and have a number of local and regional honors among them.
After finishing at the bottom of the ACC last year, the Wolfpack have nowhere to go but up. That said, even getting out of the conference basement can be tough in the ACC.
Coach George Tarantini has brought in five new players to give it a shot. In contrast to the Hokies, NC State's signing list is loaded with local talent.
However, the only out-of-state player could prove to have the biggest impact. Goalkeeper Brandyn Bumpas (Denver) is a two-time All-American with national team experience and is exactly what a team that went 1-6-1 and gave up 24 goals in conference play needs.
Will Machvick adds depth at the keeper spot, with Lucas Carpenter, Kris Byrd and Tyler Lassiter adding depth to the rest of the roster.
Although freshmen are bound to have a bigger impact on some teams (Virginia, Clemson, North Carolina) than others (Duke), these players are all faces to watch. Sooner or later, they'll be the face of the ACC.
Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at email@example.com.