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Carolina Football: Wake Forest opponent preview

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Say it with me: THIS IS NOT A CONFERENCE GAME.

Birmingham Bowl - Memphis v Wake Forest Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

North Carolina and Wake Forest have played 106 games dating back to 1888, were charter members of the ACC, and played every year from 1919 through 2004. In the Wake (I’m sorry) of ACC expansion, they’ve played just five times since, leading to the awkward scheduling of a home-and-home in non-conference play (the Deacs return to Chapel Hill in 2021 before a regularly-scheduled ACC contest at Wake the next year).

You’ll no doubt hear local pundits complain about this, and national pundits incorrectly refer to it as a conference game, but the Heels and the Deacons are getting together on a Friday (another new experience for North Carolina) in the third week of the season with no bearing on the ACC standings.

Hell yes, it’s weird.

Personnel

The Wake offense under Dave Clawson (herein called the Clawfense) was an abomination for four years. Only once between 2013-16 did they finish with over 3.0 yards per rush, and never did they exceed 5 yards per pass. S&P+ had them outside of the top 100 in each of those years, with good reason.

Something clicked for them in 2017, as the offensive line gelled, they put up 131 points in the first three weeks, and hung 55 on Texas A&M in the Belk Bowl. They haven’t looked back, playing at the nation’s fastest tempo and being efficient (while not terribly explosive) since.

They took a hit midseason when starting quarterback Jamie Newman went down. True freshman Sam Hartman emerged and led a second-half rally, with 56 points on the road at Louisville, a surprising road win at NC State, and a 59-7 shellacking of Duke.

Both guys are back, along with 1000-yard rusher Cade Carney, Chazz Surratt’s brother Sage (hereby stepping in for Greg Dortch as the #1 receiver), and elite freshman Nolan Groulx.

Wake Forest: good at the skill positions. That’s not something I’ve ever put out for public consumption.

The Wake offense has returned 9, 9, and 8 starters over the past three years, coinciding with their emergence as a credible threat. This year, they bring seven starters back— the departure of Dortch and Alex Bachman, and two offensive linemen, are the only attrition. Wake Forest will put points on the board.

Their defense, which always seems undersized but surprisingly effective (think service academy team) suffers massive losses up front, only returning the very good Carlos Basham at defensive end. He’ll be flanked by Sulaiman Kamara, who was decent as a backup last year, and two second-year players— leading me to believe they’ll be susceptible to the run.

The only senior at linebacker is Justin Strnad, who amassed a 100-tackle season last year. Again, they’re a little younger here, and youth at Wake is a dangerous thing (for Wake). Cornerbacks Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson almost have to be lockdown options for this Wake defense to be successful— and I guess the good news is that they have been...decent. Bassey has 35 passes defenses in the last two years, good enough for 2nd-team All-ACC honors last year. Henderson seemed to be largely avoided, as he had 10 PD as a freshman, and has not exceeded that number since.

Without paying close attention, the duo must have hands of stone— they’ve combined for 7 interceptions over three years despite getting their hands on over 60 passes. But they’re very solid veterans who could take advantage of inexperienced quarterback play.

Schedule

The Deacs are apparently the Friday Night Lights team of the ACC, opening with three straight Friday games: Utah St., at Rice, and then North Carolina. Their first Saturday game is a 336-off with Elon, before entering conference play with a trip to Boston College the next week.

After a bye, they stay at home for Louisville and Florida State...and another bye!

November is a bit less fun for Wake. They start with a home date vs. N.C. State (whose season they’ve more or less ruined each of the past two years— hopefully there’s nothing left to ruin this year), then go to Virginia Tech and Clemson back-to-back (ouch), before hosting Duke and finishing at Syracuse.

There’s easily room for another 6 or 7 win season for Wake here.

North Carolina vs. Wake Outlook

Look, I’m just going to say it up front: this game is going to be weird. If Carolina plays like I think they will in the first two weeks (see: close losses) I can see this as a coming-out party for the team under the new coaching staff. If they get beaten pretty badly by South Carolina and Miami...this could be another piece of a downward spiral towards an 0-5 start.

The depth on Carolina’s defense will be tested with Wake’s tempo, though some of that will be offset by the 7pm kick. If Carolina can avoid self-sabotage, they have the talent and the scheme to win this game fairly comfortably— but I am not yet willing to buy that anything in Year 1 is going to be comfortable.

Call it a shootout, call it a 41-37 North Carolina win, and let’s get the hell out of Winston Salem with a win under our belts.