Prognosticators Not Quite Ready To Embrace 'Little Old Wake Forest'

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 23, 2007

PINEHURST, N.C., July 22 -- At this time last year, the football preseason began typically for Wake Forest, with the Demon Deacons predicted to finish last in their division. The season ended with the campus draped in rolls of toilet paper, remnants of a student celebration after the Demon Deacons' victory in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.

On Sunday, during conference media day, Wake Forest found itself on an unfamiliar and -- even months later -- stunning perch as reigning conference champion. Even Wake Forest players, sitting in a conference room with representatives from each ACC team, admitted it felt odd.

"You look at all these other schools that are powerhouse schools," center Steve Justice said. "And then there's little old Wake Forest."

Despite the Demon Deacons' first ACC title since 1970, and subsequent appearance in the Orange Bowl, that reputation remains hard to shake. Wake Forest has 13 starters back from a championship team that won 11 games, a combination that would normally create a preseason darling.

But preview magazines have all but disregarded Wake Forest as a top 25 team, and a straw poll of media voters indicated it likely would be picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic Division.

"We still have a lot to accomplish and a lot to prove," Justice said. "A lot of people do think it's a one-shot wonder. They have a right to believe that, if you look at our history. That's how it's always been. We have to play as underdogs. We enjoy that, kind of feed off that."

Perhaps the foremost reason Wake Forest is overlooked is its low-voltage roster. No Wake Forest player ran for more than 507 yards last year, but six ran for more than 200. No receiver caught more than 38 passes, but eight caught at least 10. Wake Forest's offense operates with intricate misdirection, not flash.

"I can't think of any individual on that team that stood out amongst anyone else," North Carolina wide receiver Joe Dailey said. "But I think of that whole team as winners."

Which is by design. Coach Jim Grobe's best asset may be creating a team atmosphere, turning a group of players into a sort of family. "He recruits guys that care about football, and care about each other," defensive end Jeremy Thompson said.

While Wake Forest altered its place in the league, it also changed the perception of the conference. From the ACC perspective, it proved the conference is wide open and gave teams an anyone-can-win attitude. Nationally, it made observers question the traditional powers and the overall quality of the ACC.

"Wake Forest winning the championship really showed what type of league the ACC has become," Georgia Tech running back Tashard Choice said. "You see players going to different places. It's not always about the powerhouse schools."

So, then, if another Wake Forest may be lurking now, which team is it? Perhaps no team is better positioned to mimic the Demon Deacons than Virginia. The Cavaliers went 5-7 last season; Wake Forest finished 4-7 in 2005. Most important, the Cavaliers have 18 starters returning, the same number as Wake Forest did last year.

That includes nine from a defense that turned into one of the league's most stout by year's end. When asked the team to beat in the ACC, Miami guard Derrick Morse listed Virginia Tech, Florida State and, surprisingly, Virginia. The Cavaliers beat Miami, 17-7, last season. "They had great athletes," Morse said. "We got spanked."

"Watching Wake Forest, you just thought, 'Wow, what a story,' " Virginia defensive end Chris Long said. "I don't think it was a story to those guys in that locker room. To them, I just thought it was an affirmation of what they can do."

Long spoke to imply the confidence he feels in his own locker room, not with firsthand information. Both Justice and Thompson said the championship hadn't fully soaked in yet, even after they received rings during an April banquet.

This offseason, Justice would often sit at home with family and watch film from the season. "You sit back," he said, "and you can't believe that it actually happened."

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