Thursday, February 13, 2014

Even the Losers: Wake Forest

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. The fifth team we profile, is near and dear to my heart, my alma mater, Wake Forest.

Wake Forest

2013 Record: 4-8 (2-6 ACC)

Summary: After a disappointing offensive showing in 2012, the Demon Deacons revamped their offense in 2013 to include more option, harkening back to Jim Grobe's first few seasons in Winston-Salem. The season began with an expected 31-7 win against an outclassed Presbyterian team. Eight days later, the Deacons dove into conference play on a Friday night against Boston College, committed a turnover on the second offensive play, and managed under 250 yards of offense in a two touchdown loss. Returning home the following weekend, the Deacons faced Louisiana-Monroe, the mid-major upset kings from the previous season. The defense could not get off the field, allowing the Warhawks to run 104 plays in a two point loss. The Deacons righted the ship the following week against Army and then headed to Clemson where they were embarrassed 56-7; their worst loss to the Tigers since they hung 82 on a hapless Deacon squad in 1981. Credit the Deacons for not being demoralized, as they returned home to win consecutive games against NC State (their sixth straight over the Wolfpack at home) and Maryland. With a 4-3 mark, a bowl game at least seemed within the realm of possibility to even the most pessimistic Deacon fan. The next week, Wake jumped out to a 14-3 lead against undefeated Miami. The Hurricanes eventually won the game on a Duke Johnson touchdown run in the final minute. At 4-4, the Deacons headed north to face new conference foe Syracuse. Receiver Michael Campanaro was injured early in the contest and the Deacons were shut out for the third time in their last 19 games. Returning home to the friendly confines of BB&T field did not help matters against eventual national champion Florida State as the Deacons were crushed 59-3. Losers of three straight, they now needed to win out against fellow nerds Duke and Vanderbilt to have any shot at bowl eligibility. Wake jumped out to a 14-0 lead against the Blue Devils but lost by a touchdown as Duke was putting the finishing touches on a dream season. With nothing to play for but pride (and also revenge, yes definitely revenge), the Deacons traveled to Nashville in the season finale to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores. The Deacons led in the fourth quarter, but a field goal in the final minute gave Vanderbilt the win and consigned the Deacons to a fifth consecutive losing season.

What Did the Demon Deacons Do Well?
Play defense. By the yards per play metric that we will examine later in this post, Wake Forest ranked fifth in the ACC. In a 14-team league, that is well above average. By other defensive statistics, they were also quite solid, ranking 31st nationally in yards allowed per game (366) and 38th nationally in points allowed per game (24). Senior defensive linemen Nikita Whitlock and Zach Thompson combined for 14 sacks and 30 tackles for loss, allowing the defense to keep the Deacons in games despite their woeful offense. Speaking of...

What Didn't the Demon Deacons Do Well?
Run, pass, or do anything very competently offensively. Excluding sacks, Wake Forest averaged just 3.63 yards per rush. If we do some Arthur Andersen style accounting and compare that number to every other college football team using the official NCAA statistics which do include yards lost due to sacks, the Deacons would have ranked 101st in yards per rush. Compare the Deacons on an even playing field, and their yards per rush including sacks ranked 119th nationally (2.96 per attempt) ahead of only six teams in IA football. The passing numbers are not any better. Wake Forest quarterbacks, led by Tanner Price, averaged just 5.7 yards per throw (118th nationally). In conference play, the Deacons ranked last in yards per play, accumulating a putrid 3.99 yards per snap.

The Demon Deacons Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Wake Forest's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Wake Forest played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Demon Deacons averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Demon Deacons allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.
After qualifying for three bowl games in a four-season span, including an unthinkable conference title in 2006, Wake Forest cratered in 2010, as the core of those teams departed. Perhaps not surprisingly, no Deacon was drafted in 2011, the first time since 2004 that no Wake Forest player was selected. After that one season blip, the Deacons returned to their salty, irritating selves. Statistically, they were not a great team, ranking eighth in the ACC in both yards per play and Adjusted Pythagorean Record in 2011, but they were competitive and the bounces went their way (at least in conference play), where they won four of five one-score games. Ironically, the one close conference game they lost cost them a spot in the ACC Championship Game. Perhaps if the Deacons had scheduled like other BCS-conference teams that season (playing as many Sun Belt and MAC schools as they could fit on the schedule), they could have ended the year in the rankings. Alas, in three of their four non-conference games, they took on BCS-conference teams (Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Vanderbilt), losing all three and with a loss to Mississippi State in the Music City Bowl, endured another losing season. Four players from that season, including wide receiver Chris Givens, who left a year early, were selected in the draft. Without Givens to stretch the field in 2012, the offense sank, and offset marginal improvement by the defense. Needing a win in one of their final three games to attain bowl eligibility, the Deacons lost those final three contests by a combined 103 points and finished 5-7. The shift to a more option-based attach did not work in 2013, as the offense sunk even further while the defense held steady and the Jim Grobe era ended with a whimper as the Deacons fell to 4-8. When accessing Grobe's legacy in Winston-Salem, the cynic might point out the Deacons suffered five consecutive losing seasons at the end of his tenure. However, despite the struggles, Wake did play in a bowl game in one of those seasons, and twice missed out on bowl eligibility by just a single game. In his 13 seasons at the helm, the Deacons suffered only one awful season (2010). Under his predecessor Jim Caldwell, who actually was the head coach in a Super Bowl, the Deacons were awful five times in only eight seasons.

The 2014 Schedule:
The good news for Wake Forest fans is the Deacons do not play any BCS-conference teams in the non-conference portion of their schedule. The bad news is they are still unlikely to roll through it undefeated. Wake Forest begins the year with a road trip to Monroe, Louisiana to face a team that beat them in Winston-Salem last season. By no means is this game an assured loss, but it is likely close to a toss-up at best. The Deacons follow that up with an almost certain win against Gardner-Webb from IAA before heading west again to face one of the country's stronger mid-major teams, Utah State. The Aggies lost five games last season, but many statistical ratings, including those used by Jeff Sagarin, had them in the 40. A win here by the Deacons would be an upset indeed. The Deacons conclude their non-conference slate by hosting Army. While Wake has played and beaten Army three times in the past seven season, with each win coming by double-digits, an academy than runs the triple-option is not to be taken lightly. Realistically, the best Wake fans can hope for is a 3-1 non-conference record, and 2-2 would not be altogether surprising. Once conference play begins, Wake must travel to Florida State, Louisville, NC State, and Duke. Despite beating the Seminoles as recently as 2011, recent returns seem to indicate it will be quite sometime before Wake knocks off the Seminoles again. All things considered, as far as bowl hopes go, this game may as well be on the road, as the Deacons are unlikely to win in any venue. Despite the loss of Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville should once again be a quality team, so the Deacons appear unlikely to win the rematch of the 2006 Orange Bowl. While NC State was very bad last season, the Deacons have won in Raleigh just twice in my lifetime. After losing twelve straight games in the series, Duke has taken the last two against the Deacons and the tide may have turned in the in-state rivalry. A 1-3 road conference mark is probably the best case scenario for Wake Forest fans, which means the Deacons will have to earn their bowl trip at home. The Deacons play Clemson, Virginia Tech, Boston College, and Syracuse in their home conference games. Clemson has not lost to Wake Forest since 2008 and won their past two trips to Winston-Salem by 20 and 29 points respectively. The Tigers must replace several playmakers on offense, but a Wake win here would be quite a surprise. Virginia Tech has beaten the Deacons in their four clashes as conference foes (with three of the games coming in Winston-Salem). Each one save the first (in 2004) has come by double-digits. A win over the Hokies, even at home would likewise be a stunning result. That leaves Boston College and Syracuse as the most likely Wake Forest home conference wins. While the Deacons lost to both teams last season, neither team is on the level of Clemson or Virginia Tech, so a sweep of those two games is perfectly conceivable.

Reasons for Optimism:
Dave Clawson. While it is indeed a sad day that Jim Grobe is no longer the head football coach at Wake Forest, perhaps some new blood was needed. While hiring a new coach is always a crapshoot, Wake did about as well as they possibly could, aside from exhuming and reanimating the corpse of Peahead Walker, in hiring Grobe's replacement. Clawson has (rebuilding and winning) head coaching experience at the IAA level (Fordham and Richmond, which also happen to be private schools) and the mid-major level of IA (Bowling Green). Perhaps more importantly, he was not a sexy flavor of the month coach who spent just a one season or two as a mid-major head coach before being handed the keys to a BCS-conference program, nor was he a mid-major coach who harvested the fruits of his predecessor's toil. Clawson stayed at Bowling Green for five seasons, even enduring horrendous regression is his second season before steadying the program and leading the Falcons to their first conference title since 1992. Don't expect miracles in his first season, but the Deacons appear to be in competent hands.

Final Prognosis:
The Deacons were quite good on defense last season. Unfortunately, two of the biggest reasons for that success, Nikita Whitlock and Zach Thompson will be gone, and perhaps plying their trade in the NFL. Defensive back, and potential future pro, Merrill Noel will return for his senior campaign giving the Deacons some help in the secondary. Still, its hard to see the defense improving on last season's numbers. Meanwhile, the offense despite the loss of leading receiver, Michael Campanaro, who may also find himself on a pro roster, and quarterback Tanner Price, the offense has nowhere to go, but up.Checking the schedule, if the Deacons do manage a 3-1 mark in non-conference play, that would mean they would need to scrounge up three ACC wins to get to bowl eligibility. Sweeping home games against Boston College and Syracuse would then be paramount. Assuming home losses to Clemson and Virginia Tech, the Deacons would need to steal a road win against either Florida State, Louisville, NC State, or Duke. I think all those things are a little too much to ask. Pencil Wake in for a 5-7 mark, but continued optimism as fans look toward the 2015 season.

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