As college football season approaches, I noted how difficult it was to pick someone to win the ACC’s Atlantic Division. On the flip side, I could easily argue the case against every team. The “slow season” for Wolfpack news is an ideal time to explore this in more detail. Previously, we talked about Clemson and Florida State. Today, we look at the last non-NC State team to receive first place votes from the media – the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
Jim Grobe has achieved near-legendary status on the Winston-Salem campus – and for good reason. In 2006, his Deacons won the ACC championship game and made the Orange Bowl. Despite coaching at a small private school with subpar facilities, a tiny fanbase, and no natural recruiting territory, Grobe managed to create a perennial ACC contender. Who says coaching doesn’t matter? And the good times seem like they will continue, as I have repeatedly predicted (correctly so far, despite numerous advances) that Grobe will stay at Wake as long as athletic director Ron Wellman is there.
But never mind all that fluff – this is “the case against,” after all. And the Deacons wouldn’t get my vote in 2009 even if you put a gun to my head and forced me to pick somebody. Let’s start with that 2006 ACC title game. Do you remember who the game’s MVP was? That’s right – Jim Grobe’s secret weapon, P/K Sam Swank. Wake’s chances at a second title vanished in 2008 when Swank missed multiple games due to injury. I’m not sure if the numbers will bear out my gut-level observations (calling VaWolf?), but Wake’s spread offense always seemed to move the ball much better between the thirties. In 2008, when these drives stalled, Swank wasn’t there to boot 48 yard FGs (even when he was semi-healthy and active, his range was diminished). Instead, Shane Popham took the honors, alternating shanked FGs with attempted pooch punts (another facet of the game that Swank had mastered). Even when the Deacs punched it in deeper, getting at least 3 points was by no means certain. Despite 45 red zone opportunities to just 34 for its opponents, Wake only punched in two additional scores (see here for this stat). Swank may be healthy this year (the Philadelphia Eagles sure hope so), but he’s out of eligibility. As Scooby Doo might say, ruh-roh.
2009 was also a banner year for Deacons turning pro. The 2009 NFL Draft saw four Wake defenders going in the first four rounds, led by stud LB Aaron Curry (4th overall to Seattle), and the ACC’s career leader in interceptions, Alphonso Smith (5th pick of 2nd round by Denver – who traded their 2010 first rounder to get the pick). Yep, four Deacons off the board before a single Miami Hurricane was picked. Grobe should certainly be proud of this feat – but can his defense really survive the loss of four NFL-caliber defenders? As always, Grobe has upperclassman depth to turn to, but it’s almost unfathomable to expect there not to be a significant dropoff.
And that’s what one expects from Wake Forest this season – a significant dropoff. Yes, they have a solid senior QB returning. Yes, they’ll still be a royal pain in the ass to more talented opponents. Yes, they will be exceptionally well-coached. Yes, I can see them in yet another bowl game. But Wake Forest’s formula for title contention revolved around stellar special teams, dominating the field position battle, and big plays (especially turnovers) from its defense. None of those prongs come without serious question marks in 2009. So yes, I would be very surprised to see the Deacons in Tampa this December.