Dabo Swinney's enthusiasm about his two most important skill positions roughly mirrors the gradual progress within his Clemson football program.

The Tigers' coach said Wednesday he feels good about Cole Stoudt taking over at quarterback for Tajh Boyd, who led Clemson to an 11-2 record, Orange Bowl victory and No. 8 final ranking last season. If Stoudt doesn't work out, Deshaun Watson is the eventual face of the program.

"As talented a freshman at any position as I've ever been around," Swinney said during a conference call of Atlantic Coast Conference head coaches. "This guy is special."

Running back?

"That's a position that we have a chance to be greatly improved this season," Swinney said.

D.J. Howard is the senior leader. But redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman, Swinney said, "is the whole package."

Which is nice going forward, well beyond the season opener at Georgia on Aug. 30.

But it's more than possible that Clemson, even without Boyd and All-Planet wide receiver Sammy Watkins, will have a better overall team in 2014 yet not fare as well in the ACC.

Or, if you prefer to look back while looking ahead, the Tigers while building legitimate program muscle keep sliding away from the ACC championship trophy they won in 2011. They didn't repeat in 2012, were picked to win it but didn't in 2013 and won't be the favorite in 2014.

Hungry Seminoles

It's not just defending national champion Florida State, the prohibitive ACC favorite. It's Louisville, a North Carolina team that finished fast last year and theoretically improved N.C. State.

That's just the first half of the schedule.

The Seminoles are set up for another title run with quarterback/pitcher Jameis Winston likely to play better than he did as a redshirt freshman Heisman Trophy winner.

Going into spring practice, Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher was concerned that his players might lack the "hunger" of 2013.

Fisher wasn't as worried after spring practice.

"I've been pleased with our attitude and our work ethic, especially the second half of spring with how they came back together and got the chip back on their shoulders," Fisher said Wednesday.

No doubt, the Seminoles were ready to rumble at the ACC Kickoff in Greensboro last August. After the Tigers were picked to win the conference title with 95 votes to Florida State's 15, safety Lamarcus Joyner quipped, "Good luck with that, Clemson."

The Petrino factor

Louisville won't have Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback when the Cardinals play at Clemson on Oct. 11. But they will have Bobby Petrino coaching the team.

Before Petrino fell off his motorcycle at Arkansas, the Razorbacks went to the Liberty, Sugar and Cotton bowls.

They also went 3-1 against South Carolina during Petrino's 2008-2011 tenure in Fayetteville.

Petrino praised Louisville's success under former head coach Charlie Strong.

"Now it's time to go to the next level," Petrino said.

Expectations in an ACC Atlantic Division with Florida State and Clemson?

"We feel like we can go in and compete," Petrino said.

A better ACC is better - even necessary - for Clemson in its quest for a spot in college football's new four-team playoff. If Florida State seems like the leading candidate this season and for a few years to come, Clemson's one-loss path includes a close loss in Tallahassee on Sept. 20 and the toughest possible ACC schedule to satisfy computers and the new playoff committee analyzing the data.

Fans and coaches looking for the best of competitive football, and for tests that help prepare teams for things like must-win rivalry games and a four-team NCAA playoff, wouldn't have it any other way than rugged.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff