Wake Forest is in the unfamiliar position of opening the season ranked, and is perceived as one of the teams to beat in the ACC. Coach Jim Grobe believes his team is up to the challenge.
One of the most highly anticipated seasons in the program’s history begins Thursday night when the 23rd-ranked Demon Deacons visit Baylor.
Wake Forest finished last in the ACC’s Atlantic Division just three seasons ago, but rebounded in 2006 for an improbable ACC title - its first league championship since 1970. The Demon Deacons have come a long way from being the perennial doormats of the conference, as they finished 9-4 last season, including a 24-10 victory over Connecticut in the Meineke Bowl.
Coming off consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in school history, Wake Forest has lofty expectations in 2008, and the media seem to agree. The Deacons are ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 for the first time, and they have been picked to finish second in the division behind projected league champ Clemson.
“I told them, ‘It’s really cool, it’s neat to be ranked … but there’s a danger there, obviously,’” Grobe said. “The danger is that players start chalking up a good season before you’ve played the first game, and that’s certainly not what you want. I think our players understand we’ve got a lot of work to do.
“I told our players, ‘We’ve got a good football team, but that doesn’t guarantee a good season. You’ve got to make that happen.’”
Nine starters return to a Wake Forest defense that ranked 28th nationally (340.4 yards per game), held five of its final six opponents under 20 points and returned an FBS-best eight turnovers for touchdowns. Senior cornerback Alphonso Smith had three of those touchdowns, as he was tied for first in the FBS with eight interceptions, while senior linebacker Aaron Curry finished with four picks and three TDs.
The offense, meanwhile, returns the ACC’s past two rookies of the year, running back Josh Adams and quarterback Riley Skinner.
Adams rushed for 953 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman last season, and Skinner threw for 2,204 yards, 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He also led the nation last season by completing 72.4 percent of his passes, and is once again being counted on to manage games and take what the defense gives him.
“You’ve got a very comfortable guy in Riley Skinner,” Grobe said. “You’ve got a guy that realizes he doesn’t have to be a rock star. He doesn’t have to be ‘The Guy.’ He just has to be a guy that doesn’t get us beat. … I wouldn’t want his goals to be set on being better (statistically) than last year. I’d like for his goals to be set on winning more games than last year.”
Grobe would also like to see the Deacons get off to a fast start this season after opening last year 0-2. They appear to have a good chance of getting win No. 1 against the Bears, who have lost eight of their last 11 season openers and have again been picked to finish last in the Big 12.
Last season, Baylor was winless in eight conference games to end up last in the Big 12 South for the 11th time in the 12-year history of the league.
Coach Art Briles takes over a program that returns nine starters from the FBS’ seventh-worst scoring offense (17.9 points per game), and six starters from the eighth-worst scoring defense (37.0).
“You have to expect success on the field,” Briles said. “You can’t go into a situation thinking or expecting bad things to happen.”
Briles spent the past five years at Houston, taking the Cougars to four bowl games and a Conference USA title in that span. Houston had only two winning records in the 12 seasons before Briles arrived, but that kind of turnaround in the Big 12 will likely be more difficult.
The Bears have lost 12 straight games against ranked opponents and are 2-38 versus Top 25 teams since the Big 12’s inaugural season in 1996.
Baylor has won all four of the previous meetings with Wake Forest, but these programs have not met since the Bears’ 31-0 victory on Sept. 23, 1961.