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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Wake Forest (6-7, 5-3)

How was last year different from all other years? In 2001, Jim Grobe’s first season at Wake Forest — yes, he’s been in Winston-Salem more than a decade — the Demon Deacons were 3-4 heading into November before winning three of their last four. A year later, Wake Forest was 4-4 before taking three of five, capped by a 38-17 bowl win over Oregon. In 2007, the Deacons stumbled out of the gate with two straight losses before righting the ship, eventually winning nine games. The only year last season might resemble, when it comes to Grobe’s bowl teams at Wake Forest, might be 2008: first 3-0, then 4-3, the Deacons ending up winning at least eight games for the third consecutive season.

The program got back into bowl play last fall after a two-year absence — going a combined 8-16 from 2009-10 — but did so in an entirely new fashion: good early, terrible late. After upsetting Florida State on Oct. 8, the Deacons were 4-1, 3-0 in A.C.C. play. After sliding past Duke two games later, the Deacons were 5-2, 4-1 in the A.C.C.

Roughly two months after that win over the Blue Devils, Wake capped its year with a bowl loss to Mississippi State; that dropped the Deacons to 6-7, losers of five of six to end the season. The extended losing streak included narrow losses, ugly losses and one smooth win, and raised quite a few questions about the team’s potential in 2012.

One thing we know about Wake Forest: Grobe always has this team in position to compete in and out of A.C.C. play. A dreadful second half won’t derail that train of thought, especially when there is, as noted, a decade-plus of positive data at our disposal. In fact, despite the poor finish last year’s team might have featured the most potent offense of Grobe’s entire tenure.

After a spotty freshman campaign, Tanner Price grew into a solid A.C.C. quarterback — with the potential, a year or two down the road, to be more than solid. He was far more careful with the football, throwing two fewer interceptions in 181 more attempts, and in all, Price’s sophomore season stands up well against Riley Skinner’s senior season in 2009.

For the first time since 2007, a Wake Forest running back rushed for more than 720 yards; surprisingly, that back was Brandon Pendergrass, not Josh Harris. The latter looked like a breakout star heading into 2011, on the heels of a 720-yard performance as a freshman highlighted by a career day against Virginia Tech. But after rushing for 412 yards over his first five games, Harris injured his hamstring in early October and had only 10 carries over the season’s final two months.

Enter Pendergrass, who rushed for at least 70 yards in five of Wake’s last eight games. An improved running game took pressure off of Price, who in turn had ample opportunities to find Michael Campanaro and all-A.C.C. pick Chris Givens in the passing game. If not the best offense altogether, this was the most balanced attack of the Grobe era.

It wasn’t the offense that collapsed over the second half; while the Deacons did lay an egg in the regular season finale against Vanderbilt, blame the defense for the team’s sour close. On Oct. 29, Wake allowed U.N.C. to rack up a season-high 562 yards of total offense in a 49-24 win. A week later, that same offense would gain only three rushing yards in a 13-0 loss to N.C. State. Clemson gained 522 yards two weeks later. Vanderbilt, a great story but no offensive powerhouse, gained 481 yards of offense in its 41-7 victory.

The big issue is the run defense. Wake’s inability to stop the run is becoming a trend: 82nd nationally in 2009, 98th in 2010 and 79th last fall, no amount of offensive growth will offset a defense that can’t get stops on first and second down. Failing to stop the run on early downs made the Demon Deacons far more susceptible to big plays in the passing game, as we saw in losses to Virginia Tech, U.N.C., Clemson and Vanderbilt.

Season grade: B- Grobe’s leash is as long as you’ll find anywhere, inside the A.C.C. and out, but it was good for the program to find a way back into bowl play after its two-year lull. Not that Grobe was in any danger whatsoever; it takes a certain breed to accept the odds in Winston-Salem, and few coaches — with history as our guide — have the sort of mentality needed to fight against the current year after year in a B.C.S. conference. Grobe? He’s the man, and even with last year’s sloppy second half the Deacons should feel good about their potential in 2012. Why? Because the team is young, for starters, and young teams often need to slide around rock bottom before turning the corner for good. Wake Forest certainly huddled around rock bottom for much of October, November and December.

High point A 35-30 win over F.S.U. on Oct. 8. E.J. Manuel-free F.S.U., I should add, but the win called back to the not-so-distant days when Wake, undermanned and overmatched, seemed to get the better of the Seminoles every fall. The win was Wake’s fourth straight after a disappointing loss to Syracuse in the season opener.

Low point Any loss over the second half of the year. U.N.C. gets the vote for pure ugliness. In terms of pure pain, however, the pick is Clemson’s 31-28 win on Nov. 12. The Deacons stormed ahead thanks to a 21-point third quarter, but lost their grasp on the lead over the game’s final 10 minutes. A win there, believe or not, would have put Wake in the Atlantic division driver’s seat.

Offensive M.V.P. Good news, bad news. The good: Chris Givens took his game to the next level as a junior. Not that he was necessarily a disappointment as a freshman and sophomore, mind you; Givens made a combined 80 receptions over his first two years, leading the team in touchdown grab each season. But he burst through in 2011, finishing tied for second in the A.C.C. in receptions (83), third in touchdown grabs (9) and first in receiving yards (1,330). The bad news? Givens, having thrown his hat into the N.F.L. ring, won’t be back in 2012. That’ll leave Campanaro, who made 73 grabs for 833 yards, as Price’s leading target in the passing game.

Defensive M.V.P. So what if he’s amazingly undersized? Despite a bowling ball physique — don’t tell him I said that — nose tackle Nikita Whitlock is as disruptive an interior presence as you’ll find in the A.C.C. And only a sophomore, Whitlock’s best days still lie ahead. But in another good-news-bad-news vein, Whitlock’s lack of prototypical size is indicative of Wake’s defensive woes as a hole: the Deacons are as small from front to back as any B.C.S. conference defense in the country, which does explain why the defense as a whole struggles stopping the run. In the secondary, free safety Josh Bush, who had six interceptions, was a first-team all-A.C.C. selection. Bush finished second in the conference picks, seven behind N.C. State’s David Amerson.

Stock watch Losing Given is a tough blow to an offense that had its best season in years last fall, but perhaps Campanaro can step in and help Price continue his development into one of the A.C.C.’s best. Of bigger concern is the offensive line, which must replace four starters. The biggest concern, however, remains the defense. Here’s guessing that this group, which struggled so much over the second half of last fall, has turned a corner come September. There’s a tremendous amount of returning experience; only two starters must be replaced, led by strong safety Cyhl Quarles. An improved effort defensively won’t just offset Givens’ early departure — it would make the Deacons a fairly scary team in the Atlantic division, and would easily find the program back in bowl play for a second straight season.

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