The kickoff to the ACC football season fast approaches, and the questions abound. Fans of the conference’s North Carolina schools anxiously wonder if their teams will be able to compete in an expanded league that added perennial powerhouses Miami and Virginia Tech. How will N.C. State fare without superstar quarterback Philip Rivers? Can UNC finally parlay solid recruiting classes into a winning record? Can Duke and Wake Forest continue to build on their limited but surprising successes? Surely the coaches are feeling the pressure. Having pushed his team from a decade of mediocrity into the national rankings, N.C. State’s Chuck Amato realizes that another stellar year and a few key victories would put him in prime bargaining position for a job at one of the elite football schools or a seven-figure contract extension. John Bunting understands that failing to deliver on expectations after two dismal seasons at UNC could land him on the unemployment line. Ted Roof, who essentially forced Duke to give him the top job by winning two of the last three games as interim coach in 2003 (including the finale against Carolina), can easily see how success and failure will be measured in his first full year.

The heat is also rising for school administrators, who have gambled that escalating athletic budgets will be offset by increased revenues from bowl games, TV contracts and endorsement deals they believe the new league will yield. Someone, after all, must pay for the deluxe training facilities and stadium expansions that have become ubiquitous on university campuses, as well as ever-increasing expenses for the ravenous beast known as Division 1 college football.

In that context, the first couple of weeks in August provided both good and bad news for the ACC in general and the Tar Heels and Wolfpack in particular. Both schools landed highly recruited running backs who should help their respective teams in the brave new league– Barrington Edwards at UNC and Bobby Washington at State. Edwards, who played high school ball in Maryland, led his team to the state championship as a junior and, according to some analysts, was the nation’s fifth-ranked ball carrier. Washington did him one better, tipping in at No. 4 while a high-schooler in Miami. Both players, however, have been under a cloud of late. Edwards, a sophomore, played last year at national champion Louisiana State University and saw limited action despite his talent. That, says Edwards, was the reason he chose to transfer: Coach Nick Saban favored his competitors because they were from Louisiana and he was from out-of-state. “It was a little too political for me,” he told The Washington Post.

That’s not what others say. Saban cited unspecified “university problems” as the reason Edwards left, and one of his high-school coaches said in an interview that “disciplinary problems” were partly to blame. “He hasn’t made some of the greatest decisions in the world while he was down there,” the coach said. The nature of those decisions remains unclear, nor is it clear if Edwards’ departure from LSU was entirely voluntary. And news accounts note that Edwards was suspended from his high-school team during part of his senior year for “violations of team rules” that included a fighting incident.

Washington’s problems were of the academic variety. He signed a binding letter of intent to play for the University of Miami in February, but the school balked at admitting him after questions were raised over a test score that seemed too high–he scored a 750 on his SAT and a year later registered the equivalent of an 1100 on a different test, the ACT. An inside source evidently suggested to the admissions office that Washington had tried to get a stand-in for the second test. When Miami officials approached Washington and his family to discuss the scores, he asked the university for a release from his commitment and eventually found his way to Raleigh. His mother recently threatened to sue Miami for smearing his good name, which may explain why school officials refuse to comment publicly on the matter.

The irony that N.C. State and UNC are taking players who had problems at what have traditionally been considered less honorable schools is not lost on the average fan, let alone student or faculty member. Moreover, the signings have already produced at least one casualty–N.C. State junior running back Josh Brown, a much-liked and hard-working runner who earned a backup role last season, left the team after it became clear he’d been displaced by Washington and another touted freshman recruit.

No one is suggesting that Tar Heel and Wolfpack officials committed any infractions while pursuing their pigskin upgrades. Edwards was free to go anywhere that would take him after leaving LSU, and the NCAA has officially determined that Washington is academically eligible to play major college football. Both may well thrive in their new surroundings and prove their detractors wrong. And lest anyone point to Miami as the epitome of high standards, it should be noted that the Hurricanes’ top recruit this year, Willie Williams, spent the summer under house arrest after violating his probation for numerous criminal acts, including felony burglary. But the willingness of N.C. State and UNC to look past what other schools with lesser reputations would not will doubtless cause concern among those who fear that the ACC’s run for the money is a Faustian bargain that will ultimately compromise the integrity of its member institutions. Even Duke with its buff academic rep is vulnerable–well before the ACC decided to expand, Duke lowered its standards for football recruits in an effort to stay competitive. And the number of “academic exceptions” admitted to area schools to play football has been steadily rising.

New member Miami, which has garnered legitimate respect for its academic programs, is a classic example of what can happen to a school’s reputation when its football team goes rogue–the 1980s and early ’90s ‘Canes, with their notorious posses of thugs and felons, defined Miami in the public eye, an image that still lingers despite years of rehab efforts. If she wants a positive legacy, recently installed President Donna Shalala had better hope that prize recruit Williams doesn’t stray from the fold and make headlines again for the wrong reasons.

ACC administrators don’t have to look very hard to see how the need to win the big games can poison a program and taint an entire campus. A huge scandal erupted in Boulder this year after news surfaced–amid multiple rape allegations against players– that visiting recruits at the University of Colorado were treated to sex-and-drug parties and other over-the-top enticements. Only someone well practiced in the art of denial can believe that Coach Gary Barnett and his band of revelers were alone in their actions. How many coaches and administrators across the country are biting their nails in fear that former or current players will have their own stories to tell?

As the Colorado debacle shows, it takes a lot to get caught. And the opportunities to cheat are many, whether it be boosters and coaches passing cash, or tutors and professors finding ways to push failing grades into C range, or letting unacceptable behavior slide. In a high-stakes environment where a single victory can make a coach’s career or enhance a university’s bottom line, how can anyone expect coaches and administrators to act consistently and do the right thing when faced with evidence of wrongdoing by star players? Even if their coddled charges get in trouble, coaches and their bosses know the fans and alumni will forgive and forget in the name of a few more Ws.

Too bad more schools don’t behave like Wake Forest, which awarded coach Jim Grobe some serious job security after the 2002 season with a 10-year contract extension. It’s a lock that Grobe won’t have any players end up on the six o’clock news in handcuffs or a graduation rate below double digits. Having greased the slippery slope, UNC and State can only hope for the same.