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July 24, 2007
Wake Forest has tough act to follow
PINEHURST, N.C. Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe didn't mind seeing his defending Atlantic Coast Conference champions picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic Division.
"You probably should have picked us last again," Grobe quipped to reporters during the ACC Media Days at the Pinehurst Resort.
Grobe's remark illustrated the understated approach that helped Wake Forest deliver the biggest Cinderella story of the 2006 season.
Picked to finish in the Atlantic Division basement, Wake Forest instead went 11-3 and won its first ACC title since 1970 despite losing starting quarterback Ben Mauk and starting tailback Micah Andrews to season-ending injuries. Grobe built a conference champion on a campus with just over 4,000 undergraduates, making Wake Forest the second-smallest Division I-A school behind Rice.
Florida State coach Bobby Bowden called Wake Forest's stunning rise one of the greatest coaching jobs of the century.
"There ain't a better coach in the country than Jim Grobe," Bowden said.
Many coaches would have parlayed that kind of once-of-a-lifetime season into a higher-paying job at a higher-profile program. Grobe instead remained at Wake Forest without even entertaining any offers from other schools.
He already has found his dream job.
"The best thing about Wake Forest is the people were just as nice to me when we were 4-7 as when we won an ACC championship," Grobe said. "That doesn't happen everywhere.''
Grobe's attitude has carried over to his players.
Most defending conference champions would spend the entire preseason complaining about a lack of respect if they saw their team picked to finish near the bottom of the league standings.
The Deacons have shrugged it off.
"That's what we expect," senior center Steve Justice said. "We don't expect to be (predicted as) the top team. If we expect that, we're going to fail because we can't have that same mentality during the season."
They respond the same way to criticism that Wake Forest's remarkable season was nothing more than an aberration.
"There are a lot of people who think we're a one-shot wonder," Justice said. "They have a right to believe that because of our history."
The Deacons return eight starters on offense, including ACC Rookie of the Year Riley Skinner at quarterback. Wake Forest also should get a boost from the return of Andrews, who was the ACC's second-leading rusher last year when he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the third game of the season.
Andrews will run behind an offensive line that brings back three starters, including a first-team All-ACC center in Justice. Rivals.com First-Team All-American Sam Swank also returns as the Deacons' punter and kicker, though he underwent surgery during spring practice after being diagnosed with a sports hernia.
"I think we have the same amount or even more talent than we did last year," senior defensive end Jeremy Thompson said.
Even with all of that talent, the Deacons will have a tough time matching last year's success. Grobe acknowledged that a last-place finish is realistic in an Atlantic Division race that doesn't have a clear pushover.
Wake Forest's defense suffered a major blow when first-team all-conference linebacker Jon Abbate decided to enter the NFL Draft after his junior season. Abbate wasn't drafted, but he signed as a free agent with the Houston Texans.
The loss of Abbate leaves Wake Forest with only five returning starters from a defense that carried the Deacons last season. The Deacons ranked 96th out of 119 Division I-A teams in total offense last year, but they made up for it by ranking sixth in the nation in turnover margin and 12th in scoring defense.
"We've got better experience on offense than defense," Grobe said. "I like it the other way around."
Wake Forest also benefited last year from a soft early-season schedule. This year the Deacons open on the road against ACC Atlantic Division rival Boston College before playing host to Nebraska.
Mauk's decision to transfer to Cincinnati leaves the Demon Deacons without much depth at quarterback if Skinner gets hurt.
Wake Forest also knows the narrow margin of error in a conference as balanced as the ACC. The Demon Deacons went 5-0 last year in ACC games decided by seven points or less, including a 9-6 victory over Georgia Tech in the championship game.
If Chip Vaughn hadn't blocked a 27-yard field-goal attempt on the final play of the game, Wake Forest would have lost its conference opener to a Duke team that finished the season winless.
"Looking back, it's almost like if they'd made that field goal, they might have had the Cinderella year," Justice said. "It could have been a totally different year. It could have killed our confidence going into the rest of the season."
That knowledge has helped keep the Demon Deacons grounded even as they get congratulated everywhere they go around campus.
Although they know it's impossible to forget about such a memorable season, they're trying their best to put last year's glory out of their minds. Wake Forest endured three consecutive losing seasons before last year's title, so the Demon Deacons know all too well they could tumble to the bottom of the standings just as fast as they rose to the top.
"I'm proud of what we did and want our players to be proud of what we did, but that's over with," Grobe said. "I wish we could hang on to it, but we can't."
Why bother hanging on to the past? The Demon Deacons are more interested in making new memories than dwelling on old ones.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.