A breakthough year in sports doesn’t have an exact definition, but we’ve come to understand it primarily as abrupt positive change. Some breakthroughs are loud (see: Miami), others more understated (NC State this year, perhaps), while others are practically ignored. Say hello to Wake Forest.
You might be surprised to learn, for example, that Wake Forest is favored by a couple of points this weekend. While State has gotten plenty of media coverage for its successes this season, and there has been plenty of writerly lament for what’s happened at UNC and Duke, the Deacs keep flying outside of notice.
Fortunately, statistics never miss a game, and the advanced metrics can tell you everything about just how much better Wake Forest has been this season. The Demon Deacons are 29th in the S&P+ ratings, nine spots ahead of the Wolfpack, and more than 30 spots above where Wake finished 2016.
Wake doesn’t have the gaudy record to prove it, but it has been much, much better. To help put this team’s improvement in context, it helps to remember where it started when Dave Clawson took over.
Clawson pretty much started from scratch like his former MAC colleague Dave Doeren—the Deacs were absolutely lifeless offensively during the early part of his tenure and went 3-9 (1-7) in 2014 and 2015. Clawson got the program back to respectability and bowl eligibility in 2016 not because his offense was better—it wasn’t really—but because he’d built a more well-rounded team and it began to show.
Now we’re really seeing it. The Deacs had a top-25 defense last season and an offense that ranked 110th. This season, the defense has regressed a bit but is respectable, while the offense has emerged as a legitimate top-30 outfit. That is no small thing, regardless of context, but it’s especially impressive given where this program was just a couple years back.
The reasons for that leap are two-fold: Wake’s offensive line is vastly better in every conceivable way. The Deacs have a running game you have to acknowledge now, and they’ve been markedly better in pass protection. Along with that, you have John Wolford, who has been at Wake since the earliest misery of Clawson’s tenure and is now reaping rewards both for himself and the team.
Behind that offensive line, Wolford has been fantastic. He leads the ACC in passer rating, and he edges Lamar Jackson in both yards per attempt and completion percentage. Wolford has 20 touchdown passes this season against a mere three interceptions, and he led the Deacs to a 64-point shelling of Syracuse last weekend even though the team has lost leading receiver Greg Dortch to a season-ending abdominal injury. In Wolford’s freshman season, the Deacs scored a grand total of 97 points in eight ACC games.
Coming into the year, Wolford had 30 career TD passes and 45 career interceptions. Nobody saw this type of season on the horizon for him, which makes him a good proxy for Wake’s season in general. Wolford’s the best quarterback in the state, and he might have the best team in the state, but that’d be news to a lot of folks.