Let’s get to today’s segment, featuring a pair of ACC programs hoping better days are ahead …
75. WAKE FOREST
Assuming a player didn’t receive impermissible benefits, no one can take away Wake Forest’s 2006 ACC title. But no one will take away the gradual regression to the mean (which was to be expected) or last year’s complete cratering (which was less expected) as the Demon Deacons have turned back into the Demon Deacons over the last four years:
CONSECUTIVE SEASONS WITH A DECREASE IN VICTORIES
4: Wake Forest
3: Boston College
There shouldn’t have been any complaining about the 9-4 and 8-5 seasons (both with bowl victories to cap them off) following Wake’s ACC title. Granted, there were some complaints, but those came from Deacons fans who saw ‘06 as a new reality rather than a happy, unsustainable blip in the big picture.
So much had to go right for Wake to collect a run of three straight winning seasons for the first time since the early 1950s. It needed a smart, patient, level-headed coach (and still has one in Jim Grobe). It needed to develop talent and keep it around as long as possible to cut into advantages of schools with more resources (hello, mass redshirting). It had to get an effective quarterback (Riley Skinner).
And it needed help from elsewhere, which it got thanks to Florida State settling into the mire of how to solve its Bowden Conundrum, N.C. State bottoming out under Chuck Amato and Clemson, um, being Clemson.
Well, Wake went into last year’s finale expecting to start a dozen freshmen and sophomores. That included six freshmen on defense and a true freshman at quarterback. That last item is important; Grobe was caught without a capable QB after Skinner graduated and, combined with the inexperience in the secondary and on the defensive line, paid dearly for it.
But part of the problem facing Wake is beyond its control. It did a fine job with its stadium renovation, but it isn’t going to win a resource battle with most of the schools in the ACC. And now that Florida State has solved its long-term question and N.C. State has a coach who is plenty capable of churning out eight-win seasons every year and Clemson … well, Clemson has collected a bunch of talent … anyway, the Deacons’ advantages from 2006-08 have been eroded.
There’s a ceiling in the Dash, at least on a consistent basis. Grobe’s the second-winningest coach in school history, and he’s plenty able of keeping Wake in contention for bowl berths. Remember, Wake entered exactly three games in Grobe’s first nine seasons when it had no chance at managing at least a .500 season.
Nonetheless, it might be another season without a postseason trip. The Demon Deacons have a great home schedule for selling tickets, but a lousy one for actually winning; Florida State, Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Maryland and Notre Dame all come calling. Grobe will get Wake to improve, perhaps even get close a bowl bid. The downward trend in victories should be snapped, but the postseason drought probably won’t end at two years.
There’s no definitive word on how Pac-12 football compares to intramurals, though Dan Hawkins isn’t around to find out.
Instead, the Buffaloes head into their new league with Jon Embree as a first-year coach. Embree spent last season as the tight ends coach with the Washington Redskins, making him one of two NFL imports taking over major college programs this season (Connecticut’s Paul Pasqualoni is the other).
They represent the 12th and 13th coaches hired directly from the NFL since the end of the 2005 season (the fired likes of Dennis Erickson and Lane Kiffin don’t count). And intriguingly, most of them have done quite well in revitalizing programs (or, barring that, advancing their careers):
2006: Turner Gill, Buffalo (Packers director/player development) – 20-30, got Kansas job
2007: Troy Calhoun, Air Force (Texans offensive coordinator) – 34-18
2007: Nick Saban, Alabama (Dolphins head coach) – 43-11
2007: Jeff Jagodzinski, Boston College (Packers offensive coordinator) – 20-8, fired
2007: Derek Dooley, Louisiana Tech (Dolphins tight ends) – 17-20, got Tennessee job
2007: Tim Brewster, Minnesota (Broncos tight ends) – 15-30, fired
2008: Bobby Petrino, Arkansas (Falcons head coach) – 23-15
2008: Steve Fairchild, Colorado State (Bills offensive coordinator) – 13-24
2008: Mike Sherman, Texas A&M (Texans offensive coordinator) – 19-19
2008: Rick Neuheisel, UCLA (Ravens offensive coordinator) – 15-22
2009: Doug Marrone, Syracuse (Saints offensive coordinator) – 12-13
Saban has a national title. Petrino took Arkansas to the Sugar Bowl last year. Sherman and Marrone have made substantial progress. Calhoun’s done a rock-solid job. Gill and Dooley got high-profile gigs. Jagodzinski’s sin was insubordination rather than failing to win.
That’s a pretty decent trend of late, though it’s worth noting many of the coaches on the list struggled in year one (even Saban slogged through a 7-6 season). And considering where the Buffaloes were – 5-7 and unable to stop anyone with a capable quarterback – the same will probably hold true for Embree.
It will be a transition year in Boulder, and probably not one that leads to a bowl. The real test, like for most pro coaches returning to school, will be if improvement arrives in year two.
In a year in which there are few known quantities at quarterback in the ACC, Virginia probably represents the greatest mystery of all.
Marc Verica, who made due under suboptimal conditions last year to throw an equal number of touchdowns and interceptions, is gone. Michael Rocco and Ross Metheny are the most likely possibilities to take that job this season.
Neither sophomore played much last year, and the Cavaliers lose downfield threat Dontrelle Inman to graduation. That’s a fair amount of offensive flux, even for a team with a respectable amount of offensive line experience coming back.
The bigger problem for Mike London – and as an old defensive line coach, it probably stood out to him in an especially sharp way last fall – is fixing a horrendous rush defense that permitted six of the Cavaliers’ last nine opponents to roll up 200 yards on the ground. The overall average was bloated thanks to a Paul Johnson special (477 yards yielded to Georgia Tech), but the totality of the results loudly suggested Virginia has an obvious area where it direly needs to improve.
London’s received a lot of credit for infusing energy into recruiting (upgrading was not particularly difficult), taking spring practice on the road (wise in a state dominated by Virginia Tech for more than a decade) and even snagging an unexpected victory (Miami) in his first season.
How long that satiates the orange-clad masses remains to be seen. London landed a solid class in his first full recruiting cycle, a product both of his gusto and the reality he has early-career playing time to sell. But like any group of freshmen, it can’t be counted upon to be a bunch of immediate difference-makers.
It makes 2011 a likely building block. The schedule, while manageable early, isn’t particularly helpful – the Cavaliers get Florida State, N.C. State and Maryland from the Atlantic Division. Virginia might finally win a game in November for the first time since 2007 (a home date with Duke stands out), but questions on both sides of the ball probably will keep the Cavaliers below .500 for a fourth straight season.
Charlie Strong deserves plenty of credit for massaging a bowl berth (and even a postseason victory) out of the veteran-laden team he inherited from the deposed Steve Kragthorpe.
One problem, though: Graduation wiped out the Cardinals’ offense. Gone are starters at quarterback and tailback, plus four on the offensive line and the team’s top two receivers from 2010.
The big issue is coming close to maintaining a running game coming off a splendid season. Bilal Powell averaged 6.1 yards a carry and topped 1,400 yards, and a line loaded with seniors had a lot to do with his success.
Chances are, it will be on a defense ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring, overall yardage and passing yardage to carry the load.
Louisville will break in a pair of new starting cornerbacks, which is enough of a suggestion the Cardinals’ greatest strength won’t be quite so strong this year to consider them second division material in the Big East.
One thing looks obvious: Louisville needs to get while the getting is good. Three of its last four are on the road, including trips to West Virginia and South Florida. A .500 record at midseason will not bode well for a team that could easily take a half-step back this fall.
A pick that could look foolish at season’s end, the Rockets bring back a plethora of starters from an 8-5 team – but barely managed as many yards as their opponents last year. And … wait for it … Toledo enjoyed a turnover margin (plus-11) unlikely to be maintained into another year.
So how’s it going to be for the Rockets? It’s hard not to look at nearly every skill position player of any repute (notably running back Adonis Thomas and wideout Eric Page) and figure the offense will be better. Three starters are back on the offensive line, all 300-pounders (no small thing in the MAC).
Defensively, Toledo will trot out a senior-laden bunch plenty capable against the run, another welcome sign as the Rockets chase their first league title since 2004.
And best of all, they get Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois and Western Michigan – MAC contenders, all – during a three-game homestand. Only one of the Rockets’ four league road games is against a team that was better than 4-8 a year ago (Temple).
All of that combines to outweigh a likely turnover margin regression and a dreadful punting and punt return operation. Maybe the Rockets don’t get to nine wins for the first time since ‘05, but most of the pieces are in place for them to make a solid run at it.