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Syracuse football 2018 opponent preview: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Anything but last year’s result, please...

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football season won’t kick off until August 31. But let’s not pretend that would stop me from discussing the team at all -- and it hasn’t, as we’re already almost done with opponent previews for 2018.

The Orange face yet another challenging schedule this year (and odds say we’re looking at 4.5 wins). So it’s not going to be easy, even with an improved and/or healthier team. Still, we’re looking at the positives wherever possible. Today’s foe:

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

School: Wake Forest University

Mascot: Demon Deacons

#BRAND Slogan: Pro Humanitate

Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: “Drag Me to Hell” OR “The Other ACC School in North Carolina”

Recommended Blog: Blogger So Dear

Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-Wake Forest vs Texas A&M Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Coach: Dave Clawson, 5th season. Before he was manning the #Clawfense, the New York (Youngstown) native started out as a defensive back for Williams College in the 1980s. He bounced around Albany and Buffalo until 1992, when he left for Lehigh and earned his first OC gig there in 1994. Clawson moved on to run Villanova’s offense in 1996, and was successful enough to take over as Fordham’s head coach in 1999. Success at Fordham brought him to Richmond, and that earned him Tennessee’s OC job in 2008. One year in Knoxville brought him to Bowling Green, and after a MAC title in 2013, he jumped to Wake. Things started slow in Winston-Salem, but he’s now won bowl games for two straight years.

2017 Record: (8-5) (4-4)

Recapping Last Season:

A 4-0 start was scuttled by a 1-4 stretch thereafter, but Wake Forest found its offense in the latter portion of the season to finish 8-5 with a Belk Bowl title. The Deacons closed the year winning three of four, including big scoring performances against Syracuse (64-43 win) and Texas A&M (55-52 win). From October 28 on, Wake put up 30 or more points in all but one game, a 31-23 loss to rival Duke.

The key to the turnaround had a lot to do with senior quarterback John Wolford, who threw for over 3,000 yards and added another 683 on the ground, with 39 total touchdowns. That production helped Wake go from one of the country’s worst offenses in terms of yards per game in 2016 to one of the top 20 in 2017. Obviously he contributed quite a bit passing the ball, but his ability to scramble helped the Deacs run the ball well for the first time in years. Wake Forest averaged 188.92 rushing yards per game in 2017 — by far the most the program’s had in the last decade.

Defensively, the quicker tempo prevented the Deacons from making as many stops, and they allowed over 28 points per game on the season. However, they were able to generate a pass rush (28 sacks) and the secondary managed to flip the field every so often (21 turnovers in all). Duke Ejiofor was among the best defensive linemen in the conference last year, racking up 16.5 tackles for loss. The duo of Ejiofor and linebacker Jabari Williams (13 TFLs) kept opponents off-balance especially as games turned into higher scoring affairs.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

2018 Season Outlook:

Roadtrips to Florida State, NC State and Louisville won’t make this schedule all that easy, and Notre Dame is once again on the non-conference slate as well -- though at least it’s balanced out with winnable games against Tulane, Rice and Towson. Wake Forest is seen as a rising program with some great potential, though that requires Clawson’s team to survive the loss of some big names critical to the recent improvement.

On offense, Wolford is gone, putting the ball in the hands of junior Kendall Hinton. Though he has starting experience in the past, Hinton hasn’t been consistent enough to know exactly what they’ll get from him in 2018. His case is also hurt by the absence of top passing targets Tabari Hines and Cam Serigne. Conversely, receivers Greg Dortch and Scotty Washingotn (combined 98 catches for 1,433 yards last year) are back, along with the entire offensive line and running back Matt Colburn (904 yards, seven TDs).

Defensively, it’s a hard reset in the front seven, with just three starters back. Top tacklers Ejiofor, Jaboree Williams and Grant Dawson are all gone up front, and in the secondary, Jessie Bates III’s departure is a major loss. Beyond Bates, however, the rest of the defensive backs are all back and bring their combined 235 stops with them. That number also belies one of the worst passing defenses in the country last year, though (119th in FBS in terms of yards per game). Perhaps the defensive line can help there, though 43 of the team’s 106 tackles for loss last year are gone (including the top three players from 2017).

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse Game Date: Saturday, November 3

Location: BB&T Field at Groves Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Odds of Orange Victory: 45 percent

Very Early Outlook:

Last year’s loss to Wake Forest was demoralizing, but we can’t just pretend the electrifying first half (when Syracuse led 38-24) failed to occur. Even without Eric Dungey in that one, the Orange were able to throw all over the Deacons’ secondary and likely do so again this season -- especially with a lesser pass-rush coming at them. The difference will be whether or not they can contain the speedy Hinton. Unlike Wolford, who was a passer first, Hinton is more of a pure dual-threat at QB. Given SU’s struggles against mobile quarterbacks in recent years, that could pose a problem again. Expect a lot of offense here, unless weather becomes a factor.