2011 Season Preview: Young Man Blues And The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

From 2006-08, Wake Forest experienced their greatest sustained success since joining the ACC in 1953. Things have completely fallen apart for Jim Grobe since then, but in bringing back most of what was an incredibly young 2010 team, does Wake have some hope for another run of success in the near future?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

We've spent a decent amount of the time in this preview series talking about underdog tactics, how teams who don't -- or can't -- recruit as well as others, still manage to compete and win games with less talent. In college football, with such a well-defined ruling class, the constant shifts in how David attempts to beat Goliath is endlessly fascinating to me.

Well, say hello to one of the original Davids. Jim Grobe took Wake Forest to an ACC title and an Orange Bowl bid in 2006, and in the five years since, we've gotten somewhat accustomed to that idea. We can attach whatever qualifiers we want to it -- the ACC was down, college football's power structure was shifting in the 2006-07 range (think of how many non-traditional powers made serious moves at that time), they were lucky (i.e. 5-0 in close games), they won the conference in one of the worst college football games ever witnessed (and it wasn't witnessed by many), whatever -- but it doesn't change the fact that Wake Forest played in the Orange Bowl. That should always be respected and appreciated, even if most of the disclaimers above are relatively legitimate and the Demon Deacons have suffered a rather precipitous tumble in the last two seasons.

Oh, have they tumbled. They actually fielded potentially their best team under Grobe as late as 2008 (that squad went 8-5 but ranked 30th in F/+, whereas the 2006 conference champions went 11-3 but ranked just 32nd; the difference, of course, was that they went 3-4 in close games instead of 5-0), but they fell to 47th in 2009, and with just about the youngest squad you've ever seen, they bottomed out in 2010, ranking just 97th. It was easily their worst finish in what we could call the F/+ era (2005-10). But at least they were young. Other teams (Kansas) fell to pieces with a reasonably experienced team.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 1-11 | Final F/+ Rk**: 97
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep Presbyterian 53-13 W 28.8 - 32.1 L
11-Sep Duke 54-48 W 31.1 - 37.9 L
18-Sep at Stanford 24-68 L 32.2 - 37.7 L
25-Sep at Florida State 0-31 L 11.7 - 33.0 L
2-Oct Georgia Tech 20-24 L 12.4 - 23.1 L
9-Oct Navy 27-28 L 28.4 - 26.7 W
16-Oct at Virginia Tech 21-52 L 32.7 - 36.5 L
30-Oct at Maryland 14-62 L 13.4 - 37.7 L
6-Nov Boston College 13-23 L 19.6 - 34.7 L
13-Nov at N.C. State 3-38 L 16.3 - 36.9 L
20-Nov Clemson 10-30 L 18.1 - 35.9 L
27-Nov at Vanderbilt 34-13 W 28.2 - 30.5 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 22.8 91 35.8 110
Adj. Points Per Game 22.7 95 33.6 114

With true freshman Tanner Price at quarterback and a defensive line and secondary littered with redshirt freshmen, Grobe went all-in with a youth project in 2010, and the results were about what you would expect. The Deacs were able to take advantage of the less athletic defenses on their schedule -- Presbyterian (which did manage to do this to them in return), Duke, Navy and a collapsing Vanderbilt -- but they were otherwise mostly overwhelmed. Price struggled with injuries (he missed all or part of the Florida State and Georgia Tech games); when he was healthy, Wake's offense was at the very least above average until mid-October, but then Price hit the wall, and a defense going through its own issues couldn't keep games close enough. For a team that, at its best, thrives in close games, the fact that they only played in three close games (i.e. decided by eight points or less) probably tells you all you need to know about their 2010 season.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 85 101 66
RUSHING 43 76 27 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 103 109 97 92
Standard Downs 50 51 44 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 114 119 101 82
Redzone 27 28 23
Q1 Rk 55 1st Down Rk 45
Q2 Rk 71 2nd Down Rk 95
Q3 Rk 103 3rd Down Rk 95
Q4 Rk 71

At their most effective, the Wake Forest offense uses your own leverage against you. They unleash a barrage of misdirection and strategies to put you on your heels, and since you are probably bigger and faster than they are, it's the only way they're going to win games.

Wake has proven that they can win games with Grobe's underdog-friendly offense, but only if said offense knows what it's doing. With youth, injuries, youth, uncertainty and youth getting in their way, they were limited. For all intents and purposes, Price did well for a true freshman simply because he survived. He had his share of ups (37-for-53, 326 yards against Navy) and downs (3-for-16 against Virginia Tech), but he lived to tell the tale, even if his final stat line (1,349 yards, 5.6 per pass, 57% completion, 7 TD, 8 INT) was not particularly appealing.

As a whole, the goal was to shield Price as much as possible. The Deacs were semi-aggressive, racking up respectable explosiveness ratings both on the ground and on standard downs (because when the misdirection works, it really works), but they all but forfeited passing downs. Wake's always had a "live to fight another day" mentality here; only twice in six years have they ranked better than 75th in Passing Downs S&P+. But they aren't usually this bad. If things are to improve in 2011, they must take more chances on passing downs and live or die by the results.

Other tidbits:

  • While passing downs were an unmitigated disaster, standard downs really were a relative strength. This had as much to do with running back Josh Harris as anything. He showed nice wheels in racking up 720 yards (5.7 per carry with a lovely +13.6 Adj. POE) as a redshirt freshman. He and fellow sophomore Michael Campanaro (123 yards, 4.2 per carry, +2.0 Adj. POE) should give Wake what they need from the running back position, especially with four starting linemen returning. (Granted, these four starters are returning from one of the worse BCS conference units in the country, but we're trying to spark a positive, underdog vibe here, so lay off, eh?)
  • Price did not exactly spread the ball around very well -- his top three receivers accounted for a rather high 60% of all targets. But two of those targets return, including an intriguing weapon in Chris Givens (514 yards, 14.7 per catch, 58% catch rate, 4 TD). Wake will, however, need to find production from more than just Givens and possession receiver Devon Brown (302 yards, 7.7 per catch, 66% catch rate). Perhaps Michael Campanaro, who only caught ten passes last year (for 107 yards) but evidently had a solid spring?

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 94 108 79
RUSHING 96 110 75 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 91 103 86 73
Standard Downs 113 116 110 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 68 68 67 74
Redzone 113 103 113
Q1 Rk 65 1st Down Rk 113
Q2 Rk 111 2nd Down Rk 85
Q3 Rk 91 3rd Down Rk 96
Q4 Rk 112

Not so long ago, Wake Forest fielded a defense that was devastating on standard downs, leveraging opponents into second- or third-and-long and taking their chances. With linebackers like Aaron Curry (the No. 4 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft) and Stanley Arnoux, they had the talent to do such a thing. The last couple of years, they haven't. So they started from scratch in 2010, and again, it showed. While the Demon Deacons actually were not terrible on passing downs, they were a complete sieve on standard downs. You're just not going to make many stops allowing six yards on first down, or five yards on second-and-6.

When I say that Wake started from scratch, I mean they started from scratch. At the end of the season, the two-deep for their three-man line featured five redshirt freshmen and a sophomore. Their secondary was almost as bad: four true or redshirt freshmen, one sophomore and three juniors. Looking at things through this prism, it's easy to start looking for hope instead of trying to analyze why exactly they were so bad in 2010. Of course they were bad -- they were almost high schoolers!

At first glance, there were indeed signs of potential. Nose guard Nikita Whitlock, one of the aforementioned redshirt freshmen, racked up 10.5 TFL/sacks, two forced fumbles and three passes broken up, while end Kevin Smith (you guessed it, a RSFr) had 4.5 TFL/sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. Cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and A.J. Marshall were true freshmen and showed just about as much potential as upperclassmen Kenny Okoro and Josh Bush. Plus, redshirt freshman safety Daniel Mack had a pair of picks and a lot of reps. I'm not going to claim extreme upside here, but the ceiling is certainly higher than last year's level of play. The ceiling for the defense is also probably a lot higher than that of the offense.

Other tidbits:

  • Only at linebacker must Wake replace anybody of true consequence. Inside 'backer Matt Woodlief (38.0 tackles, 11.5 TFL/sacks) was more of a playmaker than interior counterparts like Hunter Haynes or Mike Olson, but in returning outside men Kyle Wilber (49.0 tackles, 14.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 4 PBU), Tristan Dorty (33.0 tackles, 7.5 TFl/sacks, 2 FR) and Joey Ehrmann (31.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF), there is still hope that the LB position can provide the kind of play-making required of them in the 3-4.
  • Wake's defense was infinitely better in the first quarter than it was the rest of the game. It appears opponents rather quickly figured out what might have been a decent Wake gameplan. Call it a sign of youth, lack of athleticism, lack of talent, whatever; you're probably correct however you label it, and it unless it was all due to youth, it is not a problem likely to be fixed in one year, if ever.

Wake Forest's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about ten great "young/youth" songs?

"America Eats Its Young," Funkadelic
"I Was Young When I Left Home," Bob Dylan
"Only The Good Die Young," Billy Joel
"When You Were Young," The Killers
"Young Americans," David Bowie
"Young At Heart," Tom Waits
"Young Man Blues," The Who
"Younger Than Today," Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals
"Youth Are Getting Restless," Bad Brains
"Youthful Expression," A Tribe Called Quest

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 54
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 69
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** 0 / +7.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 16 (8, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +1.3

Basically, Wake Forest had a lot going against them in 2010. Never mind the extreme youth ... they also had horrendous fumble luck and an unfavorable YPP margin. All possible signs point to a rebound for the Demon Deacons in 2011, but the question, as always, is how much? Because Wake was all sorts of bad last year, and a rebound of 20-30 spots in the F/+ rankings still puts them near the bottom of the ACC.

Wake Forest was so young in 2010 that they'll still be pretty young in 2011 and 2012. But when you bottom out, you at least want to know there's reason to still come to work the next season, and with sophomores like Josh Harris, Nikita Whitlock and, of course, Tanner Price, Grobe has that. Home games against Gardner Webb, N.C. State (early in the Mike-Glennon-as-QB era), Maryland and Vanderbilt will give them a chance to compile some wins if they are indeed decent, but chances are this will be another rebuilding year with the hope of another decent run in 2012-13.

 

 

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* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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