USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
The greatest achievement of Jim Grobe's career is – and forever will be, unless he performs a miracle elsewhere – Wake Forest's magical run to the Atlantic Coast Conference title in 2006, a year that began in last place in the Atlantic Division, per the preseason media poll, and ended in the Orange Bowl.
Think smaller. It was a magical year defined by a memorable 60 minutes: On Nov. 11, Wake visited Florida State and blanked the Seminoles, winning in Tallahassee for the first time since 1959 and handing Bobby Bowden the first shutout defeat of his FSU career.
COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
The win heard round the ACC ultimately changed the direction of both programs. The win played a large role in altering the Demon Deacons' general sense of self-worth; no longer satisfied with mere competitiveness, the success tasted in 2006 heightened expectations to a degree not seen in Winston-Salem since the days of Peahead Walker. Eventually, Wake crumbled under the weight of unrealistic yet unrealized goals.
For FSU, meanwhile, the loss was one of the final straws. A year later, the program hired Jimbo Fisher as offensive coordinator and Bowden's eventual replacement. He filled Bowden's shoes in 2010, and the rest is history.
We've come full circle. As in 2006, the Deacons are coming off a four-win season. Expectations are low. The Seminoles are big, boasting, brimming with stars and back in business. Wake will head to Tallahassee as 20-point underdogs, the general public will give the points and take the over, and an upset win would be the most shocking development of the ACC season.
Well, one thing's changed: Grobe's no longer in town, having tendered his resignation last Dec. 2, three days after a season-ending loss to Vanderbilt. At least his replacement, Dave Clawson, is no stranger to rebuilding projects.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
But this isn't a particularly strong team, of course, nor one worthy of being included in the top half of the Atlantic Division. On paper and elsewhere, Wake comes up short against Florida State and Clemson – of course – and seems less secure than improved Maryland and still-talented N.C. State. Regardless, this team and the staff should set the barometer for success at six wins.
In a nutshell: It all seemed so familiar. Wake's wins came against Presbyterian, Army, North Carolina State and Maryland, four teams of varying degrees of inconsistency, ineffectiveness and incompetence. The Deacons also suffered through close losses to Boston College, Louisiana-Monroe and Syracuse, opponents in the same general stratosphere, but were utterly overmatched against the ACC's best in Clemson and Florida State. Beat terrible teams, lose to equal teams, get your doors blown off against real teams. The offense was again an issue, continuing a trend, but what made last season particularly frustrating was the growth on defense: Wake could have reached bowl play with just a little bit of offensive juice.
High point: Back-to-back wins against N.C. State and Maryland in October. Those two wins moved Wake to 4-3 heading into the home stretch.
Low point: Florida State. Wake would complete one more pass to itself, seven, than to FSU defenders.
Tidbit: The loss to Vanderbilt capped Grobe's record with the Deacons at 77-82. Why is that noteworthy? Because he ended his tenure tied for the most wins in program history with Walker, who went 77-51-6 from 1937-50. Although Grobe ended his turn with more losses than wins, it pays to view his career in a historical perspective – not to mention against the standard set by his predecessors in the position. He holds the program record for most bowl appearances, most bowl wins, most eight-win seasons and most wins during a four-year span (50 from 2006-9). In 2006, he led the Deacons to the first double-digit-win season in program history. That 2006 season also included an ACC title, Wake's second ever, and a record nine weeks in a row ranked in The Associated Press Top 25.
Tidbit (offense edition): There are 14 teams in the ACC. Last fall, the Deacons ranked 14th in the league in total offense, 11th in passing, 13th in rushing and 13th in scoring during conference games. In terms of the final conference rankings, this was actually an improvement on 2012, believe it or not – so thank goodness for Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the league's offseason additions. Two years ago, the Deacons ranked last in total offense, third-to-last in passing, last in rushing and last in scoring.
Tidbit (coaching edition): Clawson comes over from Bowling Green, where he capped his five-year stint with 10 wins and the Mid-American Conference title. Winning at BGSU – he had three winning seasons overall – might have been the easiest task of his coaching career, believe it or not. It's been a career defined by one successful rebuilding project after another: Clawson first won at Fordham, long a doormat, and then Richmond, where he laid the foundation for a title run before being hired as Gregg Brandon's replacement with the Falcons. As expected, Clawson brought offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero and Mike Elko along from Bowling Green. Another two hires bear noting; Kevin Higgins will serve as the assistant head coach after nine years with The Citadel and offensive line coach Nick Tabacca did solid work in the same position at Ball State.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Best ACC hires or promotions since 2005
1. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State (2010)
2. David Cutcliffe, Duke (2008)
3. Dabo Swinney, Clemson (2009)
4. Larry Fedora, North Carolina (2012)
5. Jeff Jagodzinski, Boston College (2007)
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Wake is starting nearly from scratch in terms of scheme, philosophy and personnel, setting the Deacons' offense equally behind the curve in the transition to Clawson's updated approach. Who's gone? Last year's leading passer, two leading rushers, two leading receivers and two starting offensive linemen. What's changed? Clawson believes in not just balance – because everyone says they want balance – but flexibility hinging on his personnel, as shown during his stint with the Falcons. His first team threw for 4,000 yards; his fourth ran for nearly 2,000 yards; last fall, his fifth team threw for 3,725 yards and ran for 2,707. What this spells, basically, is that Clawson avoids pigeonholing his personnel into a specific scheme, instead altering his blueprint to match what his offense brings to the table. Oh, and that his offense will take flight once his own recruits gain some experience.
But unlike in 2009, Clawson's debut at Bowling Green, the Deacons' offense won't hit the ground running. Begin with an offensive line that bottomed out last fall as the worst in the ACC. Two starters must be replaced, with Steven Chase gone from left tackle and Frank Souza from right guard, as well as an interior reserve in Whit Barnes. Step one: Address the tackle situation. Wake should start junior Dylan Intemann on one side and either junior Hunter Goodwin or senior Antonio Ford on the other, with the placement depending on the throwing hand of the new starter – Intemann would remain on the right side if left-handed sophomore Tyler Cameron gets the nod, for example. It will be all sophomores inside, with Ty Hayworth at left guard, Cory Helms at center and Josh Harris at right guard. Youth comes with a price, but remember: Hayworth and Helms started most of last season and Harris saw plenty of time behind Souza. Helms in particular looks like a keeper.
As at quarterback, a pair of true freshmen running backs will impact the current two-deep come fall camp. Coming out of the spring, however, Wake's running game focused on senior Orville Reynolds, who was used primarily at receiver a season ago, and sophomore Dominique Gibson (138 yards), a pure short-yardage option without the balance to serve as an every-down back. A total lack of depth – the Deacons moved James Ward from safety to lend a hand – means at least one of freshmen Tyler Henderson and Isaiah Robinson will play. Overall, this is the weakest backfield in the ACC.
With Michael Campanaro, Spencer Bishop and Sherman Ragland gone, Wake Forest must regroup without 48.4% of last year's total receptions, 51.5% of its receiving yards and 64.3% of its touchdown grabs – the lion's share by Campanaro, one of the most productive skill players in school history. Whether this receiver corps can recoup this lost production and help the Deacons slide a new starter under center hinges on the play of three sophomores and a transfer. First, the sophomores: Tyree Harris (17 receptions for 176 yards) is the passing game's new focal point, Jared Crump (16 for 176) is coming off an outstanding spring and Jonathan Williams (17 for 221) could benefit from the coaching change after quickly falling out of the rotation a season ago. The transfer, E.J. Scott, comes over from Virginia and is immediately eligible. Another three incoming freshmen add depth. Sophomore Zach Gordon, a former three-star recruit, steps into Bishop's shoes at tight end.
Defense: Wake Forest bids adieu to the 3-4 and adapts Elko's 4-2-5 zone-based scheme. Here's a reason why this is a good idea in the long run: Wake's Florida-centric recruiting style typically yields athletic prospects along the back seven but struggles landing big-bodied interior linemen, so rolling out a scheme predicated on speed, athleticism and aggressiveness seems wise – on paper, at least. But for 2014, the shift to a four-lineman front will strain the limits of the Deacons' depth and experience along the line, a group decimated by the graduation of three senior starters. One, tackle Nikita Whitlock, will be impossible to replace.
To help matters, Wake transitioned a pair of linebackers down a step prior to spring drills. One, senior Zachary Allen, has already grabbed a starting role at end; he returns after missing all of last season, but produced as a freshman and sophomore when given the opportunity to run with the first-team defense. For the spring game, at least, Allen was joined up front by junior end Desmond Floyd, sophomore defensive tackle Josh Banks and senior nose tackle Johnny Garcia. A few words: Floyd wasn't a great fit for the 3-4 but has the ideal size and first step for defensive end; likewise with Banks, who could be disruptive against single blockers, thanks to his initial burst; and Garcia seems motivated to make the most of his final season. Additional depth inside comes from junior Tylor Harris and true freshman Zeek Rodney, while rookie end Rashawn Shaw was the gem of February's recruiting class.
The second level has a perfect 4-2-5 linebacker in Marquel Lee, a rangy, 215-pound sophomore with the sideline-to-sideline skills to match up well in both run support and coverage. In terms of his running mate, Wake has junior Brandon Chubb (87 tackles), a returning starter, but I wonder if his 240-pound frame fits the theme on defense; another option would be sophomore Teddy Matthews (20 tackles), who had a good spring. Based on his history of production, Chubb should start and be a valuable piece of the run defense, though he could be spelled by a more agile linebacker in certain packages.
Hope comes from the secondary, a group headlined by a pair of standout cornerbacks and enough depth to flourish along the back end of Elko's new scheme. On the edges, seniors Kevin Johnson (58 tackles, three interceptions) and Merrill Noel (53 tackles, three interceptions) might be the finest cornerback pairing in school history – and let's remember it wasn't that long ago that Wake had the duo of Brandon Ghee and Alphonso Smith. Junior Hunter Williams (39 tackles) will hold the hybrid safety-linebacker role, which could task the range of his athleticism, while sophomore Ryan Janvion (95 tackles) and senior Anthony Wooding Jr. return at strong and free safety, respectively. While both will start, you have to think Wake will find a role for sophomore safety Thomas Brown, the star of the spring game. The secondary is prepared for the shift in defensive style.
Special teams: Kicker Chad Hedlund has been unreliable from beyond 40 yards – not to mention questionable inside 40 yards – and a weak link as a kickoff specialist, so he needs to get stronger. While the entire group returns, including punter Alexander Kindal and snapper Logan Feimster, don't look for anything special on returns, an issue for Wake going back to 2011.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: It was all there for Tyler Cameron, last year's backup, who entered the offseason with a fabulous shot at securing the starting job left vacant by Tanner Price but ultimately threw it away during an entirely unproductive set of spring drills. The capper was the spring game, when Cameron showed none of the traits – accuracy, confidence and pocket presence – Clawson and Ruggiero demand from the position. On that particular afternoon, Wake's best option was Kevin Sousa, a junior who spent last season at wide receiver. So we're back to square one: Wake heads into the summer as it entered the spring, with no idea of what to do under center, and will return to the drawing board in August.
It's not that bad. For starters, Clawson was already hesitant to name a leader coming out of the spring due to the summertime arrival of two three-star recruits, Travis Smith and John Wolford. All the spring does is increase the odds that Wake rolls the dice with one of the two rookies, with Wolford the more touted as a pocket passer by recruiting services. Where each is trailing Cameron and Sousa is in knowledge of the system, even if both returnees are only slightly more experienced with Clawson's overall vision; where the gap is more noteworthy is in live-game experience, even if Cameron's has come only in garbage time. Early pecking order: Cameron ahead of Sousa by a micron, with Smith and Wolford a hair behind before fall camp. Seeing that one or both will eventually catch up, however, I have no doubt that Wake will start a true freshman at quarterback in 2014 – perhaps even in the opener.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Utah State: Knocking off the Aggies in Logan would put Wake at no worse than 2-2 heading into ACC play and perhaps even 4-0, should the Deacons come out strong at Louisiana-Monroe in the opener. A solid start is mandatory: Wake opens league play at Louisville and Florida State, the latter set to be a slaughter, and will play Clemson, N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Duke in November. With the Wolfpack coming on the road, the Deacons will likely be an underdog in every game against ACC competition.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: A coach well-versed in the ins and outs of rebuilding takes on another project: Clawson, as before, inherits a program fallen on hard times and aims for a leap into conference contention. In the case of Wake Forest, think more Fordham, less Bowling Green – meaning a losing season, not a bowl berth, and a year defined more by off-field results than Saturday's final score. Essentially, the Deacons are a team in flux – in terms of this personnel, which lags behind the ACC in most spots – undergoing a shift in scheme, philosophy and mentality under a new staff. As in most cases, it won't be a seamless transition.
The good news comes almost entirely on defense, where Wake can be fairly competitive from the start thanks to the ACC's most underrated secondary. The cornerback pair is terrific; the safeties are a step behind but perhaps deeper, thanks to Brown's strong offseason. Of concern defensively is this line, which lacks the proven depth needed to produce in the move to the new four-man front. But let's be serious: Wake's Achilles heel is an offense that lacks it all, from soup to nuts, and will struggle to put points on the board in and out of conference play.
The quarterback competition hasn't moved an inch. The backfield is short on talent. The receivers are promising but still young, so one imagines it taking another year before the group hits its stride. The offensive line is a strength, relatively speaking, but must land next-step play from the interior to survive against the ACC. In summation, it's a rebuilding project. But that's why you hire a Clawson, isn't it? His process begins in 2014 with Wake at the bottom of the ACC.
Dream season: Wake doesn't pitch a shutout in Tallahassee, but a 6-6 finish marks an auspicious debut for Clawson and his staff.
Nightmare season: The Deacons go 2-10, beating Army and Gardner-Webb but losing each ACC affair by 10 or more points.
Who's No. 104?This school's football team and men's basketball team have won on the same day only three times since 2006.