As the Wake Forest football team opens summer practice in the coming days, it is never too early to look forward to the grand Saturdays of autumn. The Demon Deacons, as usual, have a very challenging schedule this season. Following a 6-7 campaign that nearly resulted in an ACC title game appearance, Wake Forest faces one FCS team, two independents, one SEC rival and eight ACC foes.
Let's take a look and analyze the Deacs' first six opponents this season after the jump, with part two coming early next week.
9/1 vs. Liberty
2011 Record: 7-4
Bio: The Flames are an above-average FBS team under head coach Turner Gill (yes, the former Kansas coach). First year quarterback Gabe Henderson will be under center and will be without All-Conference 1,000 receiver Chris Summers. The focal point of their offense is senior running back Aldreakis Allen, who had 958 total yards last season. He finished the season on a tear with five straight games over 100 total yards, albeit against the likes of Coastal Carolina and VMI.
Most of the Flames' top defenders return from last season. The cornerback duo of last year's leading tackler Chris Mayo and Brent Vinson should lead a strong secondary. Francis Bah, from Germany, lead the team in sacks last season and should be force in the FBS. The linebacking core possesses strength and depth, as well.
Outlook: The Flames will be one of the better FBS teams next year, but the Demon Deacons are in the ACC. Purely based on measurables (size, speed, strength), Wake Forest completely outmatches Liberty. Wake Forest will have no trouble with Liberty at home, but expect the Demon Deacons to come prepared because Turner Gill remains one of the better coaches around.
9/8 vs. UNC
2011 Record: 7-6
Bio: The Tar Heels have one of the most experienced and talented teams in the ACC. They pose a variety of mismatches on both sides of the ball. The duo of junior quarterback Bryn Renner and sophomore running back Giovani Bernard is one of the most dangerous in the ACC. Renner threw for 3,086 yards and 26 touchdowns in his first year as a starter, while Bernard ran for 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns. They also return four starters from the offensive line and their second-leading receiver. On defense, the Tar Heels return seven starters from a big, physical defense prone to big plays.
Without a doubt, this is a very talented team, but one that faces a few questions. How does first year head coach Larry Fedora handle his first BCS coaching gig and the pressures that follow in Chapel Hill? Also, considering the postseason ban the team faces for NCAA violations under the previous regime, how motivated and dedicated will this team be week-in and week-out?
Outlook: Last season, UNC defeated the Wake Forest 49-24 at hostile Kenan Stadium. The Demon Deacons uncharacteristically committed five turnovers, four of which the Tar Heels converted into touchdowns. Wake Forest must be smart with the ball against this aggressive defense. In addition, the defense must contain Renner, who threw for a career-high 338 yards and three touchdowns, and Bernard, who ran for 154 yards and three touchdowns.
Expect a motivated Tanner Price and a taut defense to open ACC play after the tough showing last season. The Demon Deacons will have the benefit from a raucous crowd against its in-state rival.
9/15 at Florida State
2011 Record: 9-4
Bio: Most offseasons consist of Florida State faithful blabbering on message boards and blogs about why this season the Seminoles will win the ACC, go undefeated and play in the BCS National Title Game. This year is no different. Even though they have not won the conference since 2005, they have good reason to believe this year is different. Head coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff consistently reel in elite talent to Tallahassee, finishing in the Top 10 in recruiting the past five years, according to Yahoo Sports.
Rocket-armed quarterback EJ Manuel returns to lead an experienced and athletic attack. The four leading receivers all return to form one of the most formidable aerial attacks in the country. Four returning starters from the offensive line will pave massive holes for leading rusher and speedy sophomore Devonta Freeman on the ground attack.
The Seminole defense is fraught with incredible depth and talent. It possesses potential 2013 first round picks on all three levels with gifted defensive end Bjoern Werner, explosive outside linebacker Brandon Jenkins and imposing cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Jenkins has a small chance to become Florida State's all-time sacks leader, needing 14.
Outlook: The Seminoles will have a huge chip on their shoulder after Wake Forest beat them last season and four of the last six years. Last year, Wake forced five turnovers in route to a 35-31 upset. This year will be played at Doak Campbell Stadium. Anticipate these FSU fans to act extra rowdy to avoid another embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Deacs.
Wake Forest's experienced secondary must limit Florida State's big play threats and force the Noles into long third downs. As always for Jim Grobe coached teams, forcing turnovers remains a must against a division rival. Josh Harris needs to step up like last year to force the Seminoles to defend the run. This will provide ample throwing lanes for Tanner Price.
9/22 vs. Army
2011 Record: 3-9
Bio: Watching the Black Knights play, one might think they entered a time machine back to the 1950s. They run the old school, deceptive triple option offense. The offense revolves around trickery, where the quarterback, running back and fullback all are options to run on every play causing confusion and misdirection on every play.
Army returns eight starters on offense, including its three main runners, powerful quarterback Trent Steelman, 1,000-yard rusher Raymond Maple and Malcolm Brown. On defense, the team returns seven starters. The Black Knights are absent of stars on defense but play great as a team. They wear down opposing offenses by forcing long drives and limiting big play opportunities.
Last season. they performed admirably against their arch-nemesis Navy, losing 27-21, and upset bowl-bound Northwestern, 21-14, but were blown out by the likes of Northern Illinois and Ball State.
Outlook: Wake Forest cannot overlook the wily Black Knights in Winston-Salem. On defense, the Demon Deacons must play incredibly disciplined and smart. They need to watch the ball and be aware of misdirections and fakes. The defensive line and linebackers will be tested and cannot take a single play off.
Expect All-ACC defensive end Nikita Whitlock, whose prowess is stopping the run, to bulldoze through the Army offensive line and cause a major headache for head coach Rich Ellerson. On offense, the Demon Deacons should be able to move the ball, but, do not underestimate the will and fight of Army.
9/29 vs. Duke
2011 Record: 3-9
Bio: The Blue Devils have been stuck among the ACC's cellar dwellers for decades. They have not made a bowl game since 1994. Although they have lacked success, optimism remains high in Durham that the team will break the streak this season. Two-year starting quarterback and the ACC's active career leader in passing yardage (6,352), total offense (6,235) and pass completions (601), Sean Renfree, returns under center for his senior year.
Head coach David Cutcliffe (the quarterback guru that coached both Peyton and Eli Manning in college) professed that Renfree possesses elite talent and pro potential but needs to become more aggressive. Renfree will have his favorite target back, All-ACC Second Team wide receiver Conner Vernon. The shifty and sure-handed receiver enters the season 34 receptions short of the ACC record.
The Blue Devils also return four members from their offensive line. Defensively, the Blue Devils lack the size and depth compared to many other ACC foes, but they do return several strong contributors. Second-leading tackler, safety Walt Canty, will lead a veteran secondary, and Kelby Brown will provide strength to the linebacking core.
Outlook: Wake Forest has defeated in-state rival Duke in every season since 1999. Last season, the Demon Deacons won, 24-23, with Chris Givens scoring a game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. To continue the streak, they need to contain Renfree's strong arm, and reigning ACC Rookie of the Year Merrill Noel needs to limit Vernon's touches.
The offense should be able to move the ball on an inexperienced Blue Devil defense that is prone to the big-play. Expect a strong performance from Michael Campanaro at BB&T Field.
10/6 at Maryland
2011 Record: 2-10
Bio: After an exciting opening night victory against Miami, the state of the Terrapins looked promising under new head coach Randy Edsall. They sported "unique" (see: ugly) jerseys and created a national buzz for the middling program. The glee quickly turned to despair after they lost 10 of their next 11 games. Their only other win was against Towson.
The Terrapins return run-first quarterback CJ Brown. He finished with 574 yards and five touchdowns rushing and completed 82 of 166 passes for 842 yards and seven touchdowns. This season, Brown will have lightning-fast wide receiver Stefon Diggs as a prime playmaker. The five-star recruit chose to stay in his home state over Ohio State and Auburn. Three starters from the offensive line return.
Maryland's move to a 3-4 defensive scheme will unleash its two biggest weapons: Joe Vellano and AJ Francis. The big-bodied defensive linemen consistently rush the passer and clog up running lines with success. The defense returns nine starters. Overall, twenty-five different players have left the team since Edsall's hiring; this trend reflects poorly on the staff and the future state of the program.
Outlook: Wake Forest dominated Maryland, 31-10, to clinch a bowl berth last season. Tanner Price meticulously pieced apart the Terrapins secondary for 320 yards and three touchdowns. He should continue this success if the offensive line can provide him with enough time in the pocket to make his reads. The youthful line needs to keep Vellano and Francis out of passing lines.
The Demon Deacon defense must close the running lanes for CJ Brown, who ran for 110 yards against them last season, and keep Stefon Diggs in front of the secondary.