by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Pinch me! Was it real? Or was I just dreaming about Wake Forest being a powerhouse football team and BCS qualifier not long ago after my group date with a collection of Fox News babes?

(Remember, we’re talking about dreams here...especially that Fox News bit).

Except that we weren’t fantasizing about that Demon Deacon BCS stuff. Wake really was a football force not long ago. Then again, a lot of things have changed in the world since the end of 2006, when the Deacs had just won the ACC title and were preparing to play Louisville in the Orange Bowl. Remember, real estate prices were at historic highs back then. Don Imus was still on MSNBC every morning. And Barack Obama was just a senator from Illinois. So, Wake Forest winning the ACC football championship and playing in the BCS Orange Bowl fits in with a narrative of those times, and part of a very different world five years ago.

That 2006 Orange Bowl season is still met with disbelief by most football fans on Tobacco Road and countless Demon Deacon backers who could be excused for believing if it all really happened. The school better known as the alma mater of Arnold Palmer and Tim Duncan has rarely made headlines on the gridiron. And when the football team had a rare good year, the coaches usually didn’t stick around, such as Cal Stoll in 1972 when bolting for Minnesota after a pair of 6-5 seasons, or John Mackovic for an assistant job with the Dallas Cowboys just a year after leading the Deacs to a rare bowl game (the Tangerine, long before it became the Citrus, then the Capital One Bowl and a New Year’s game) in 1979. Veteran HC Bill Dooley was also so giddy after stewarding Wake to an 8-4 mark and Independence Bowl win over Oregon in 1992 (the Deacs’ first bowl game since Mackovic’s Tangerine appearance thirteen years earlier) that he decided to retire. Since 1953, the Deacs have gone through twelve different head coaches and lost 64% of their games. Alabama, this isn't.

For a while, however, that long-standing image of Wake as a football pushover was cast aside by shrewd HC Jim Grobe, one of the more-respected tacticians in the country who led the Deacs to an unprecedented three bowl games in a row from 2006-08 and remains the only Wake coach in more than a half-century to fashion a winning record at the school (he’s 62-60 since taking over in 2001). Along the way Grobe rebuffed countless interested suitors that reportedly included Nebraska and Notre Dame (can you imagine Cal Stoll’s reaction had the Cornhuskers or Fighting Irish, instead of Minnesota, offered him their jobs back in 1972?). But more than a few ACC observers believe that a variety of other factors besides Grobe’s presence contributed to Wake’s emergence, not the least of which was a down cycle in the ACC in which usual powerhouses such as Florida State and the recently-enlisted Miami were entering brief periods of decline, while annual contenders Clemson, North Carolina, and Georgia Tech were each in various stages of transition. Emerging in that vacuum was Wake, which besides Grobe’s tactical nous also managed to hit a few rare homeruns on the recruiting trail during those years with the likes of defensive aces such as LB Aaron Curry and DB Alphonso Smith, both current NFL stars.

But the past two years, especially 2010, have served as a cold bucket of water over the heads of Deacon fans who are now getting used to the idea of Wake being a pushover once more. Last year’s 3-9 mark was every bit as ugly as the record indicates, and is giving rise to a chorus around Winston-Salem that wonders if the lightning-in-a-bottle Grobe captured for a few years might be gone forever. The Deacs endured a nine-game losing streak at one point last season and were hammered by 30 points or more on five different occasions...just like the old Wake teams we remember from the ‘60s, when the Deacs never recorded a winning record.

For what it’s worth, Grobe believes what turned out to be a rather barren recruiting patch from 2006 was partially responsible for last year's steep decline, as the normal veteran leadership from the elder class was almost completely absent last season when only eight redshirt seniors were even on the roster, and a mere four seniors were in the lineup for the final game vs. Vanderbilt. Whatever the reason, Wake’s problems ran deep on both sides of the ball a year ago; the Deacs ranked in triple digits nationally in a variety of important stat categories, including total offense (108st), plus total (101st) and scoring (110th) defense. After nine years on the job, Grobe was basically starting from scratch again last season.

Emerging from the rubble of 2010 is the hope of a new beginning, forged in part by sixteen returning starters and a handful of key contributors who received their baptism under fire as true frosh a year ago. Included in that group is soph QB Tanner Price, who made nine starts as a rookie last season when Grobe struggled to find an adequate replacement four-year starter Riley Skinner, whose extended time with the program seemed to date to the days when Norm Snead was playing QB a half-century ago. Price performed with occasional flair but spent much of his time on the run due to ineffective pass blocking, with the result a watered-down aerial attack that ranked a poor 114th nationally in passing yardage. That wasn’t a complete surprise as Grobe and long-time o.c. Steed Lobotzke had incorporated more option looks into the offensive scheme to compensate for the lack of experience in Skinner’s wake; the playbook has expanded for Price as he enters his soph campaign, and the hope is that he will be more confident throwing downfield this fall after mostly dinking away as a frosh. Soph wideout Chris Givens, however, hinted at becoming a lethal deep threat when averaging 15 yards on his 35 catches last fall. The return of four starters (and seniors) along the OL provides some encouragement, and pinball-like soph RB Josh Harris promised better things to come when bouncing for 720 YR in 2010, including an eye-opening 247 yards vs. Bud Foster’s usually-resolute Virginia Tech defense. Expect the usual array of Grobe’s patented orbit sweeps and reverses from the wide receivers, although the “O” cannot be as landlocked as it was in 2010 if it is to lead the climb back to bowl contention.

The other problem Grobe has with his offense is that it appears ill-equipped to trade points (unless it is playing Duke, a 54-48 victim last year) due to a rubbery defensive unit that allowed a whopping 36 ppg. And herein lie most of the stark indicators of the Deacs’ recent decline, as the stop unit has been increasingly less effective in recent years, from allowing a low of 15 ppg during the Orange Bowl season of 2006 to 28 ppg in ‘09 and then ballooning to the aforementioned 36 ppg a year ago. The absence of playmakers is reflected in recent turnover numbers; Wake forced a whopping 37 of ‘em in its last bowl season of 2008, and hasn’t caused that many giveaways combined in the last two years (15 in ‘09 and 17 in 2010). Softness against the run (the Deacs ranked 99th in rush “D” a year ago when conceding 193 ypg) is hopefully better addressed by a switch to 3-4 defensive looks which were partially implemented late last season and now authorized by new co-d.c.’s Brian Knorr and Tim Billing. Knorr is hoping that former DE Kyle Wilber, who was moved to an OLB spot in the spring, will be able to wreak havoc with more room to roam and will result in some of the momentum-changing plays the “D” hasn’t been able to produce the past few years. Cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and A.J. Marshall were two of the other true frosh thrown to the wolves in 2010, and will hopefully be more acclimated to their surroundings this season. Nine starters return on the platoon, but depth has been an issue in recent years, and a crying need for playmakers to emerge must be addressed. Otherwise, Wake’s recent slide might not abate this fall.

A highlight of this year’s schedule is a rare visit by Notre Dame to Winston-Salem, a favor from the Irish to Deacons’ school president Nathan Hatch, who served for several years in South Bend as the provost under former Notre Dame prexy Monk Malloy. No word yet, however, if Brian Kelly is expected to take it easy on Wake because of the Hatch-Malloy connection.

Grobe’s onetime magic touch vs. the pointspread has also mostly disappeared the past few years; the Deacs slipped to 3-8-1 vs. the line in 2010 and haven’t recorded a winning spread mark since 2007. We’re not anticipating the Deacs laying a lot of points to anybody this year, but in case they do, note their very poor 4-19 mark as chalk of 7 points or more over the past decade.

Summary...We suspect those magic years at Wake in the middle of the past decade are going to begin looking further and further away in the rear-view mirror as the Deacs struggle to escape the ACC Atlantic basement this fall. Though we don’t minimize Grobe’s expert scheming abilities and game-management skills, there’s only so much he can do if outmanned as Wake was a year ago, and until further notice we can’t assume that dynamic will change too much this fall. If a breakthrough is to occur, the maturation process of QB Price will have to accelerate, playmakers are going to have to emerge on both platoons, and the new 3-4 defensive looks must begin to resonate immediately. But with a tough schedule featuring nine bowl teams from a year ago, Deac fans are best advised not to hold their breath, and we might even begin the hear chatter on Tobacco Road that the Grobe regime could be past its sell-by date.

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