Preseason Preview: Vandy vs Wake Forest

With the season kicking off on Thursday it is time to wrap up our season preview pieces. After toughing out the SEC schedule Vanderbilt finishes the 2013 slate with the visit of Wake Forest.

WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 30; Time TBD

WHERE: Vanderbilt Stadium (Nashville, Tenn.)

LAST SEASON: 5-7 (3-5 ACC, 4th place in ACC Atlantic; No bowl game)

CURRENT PRESEASON RANKING: Not ranked

SERIES HISTORY: Vanderbilt leads, 9-6. (Last meeting: Vanderbilt 55, Ole Miss 21 in the final game last season)

OFFENSE: After a 2012 season where Wake Forest managed to score more than 28 points only once something needed to change offensively. The plan is to go back to more of a run based system as the Demon Deacons just cannot match up athletically with the power teams in the ACC. This shift will allow Wake to best use their personnel and take the pressure off of quarterback Tanner Price after two years where the Deacs threw the ball an average of 442 times a season. Coming into the season the biggest question for Wake Forest is the offensive line. The line has been a continual problem over the last few years as a combination of injuries and recruits not panning out has really watered down the amount of talent available up front. One of the big questions is whether or not senior tackle Steven Chase can regain full mobility after his ACL injury. Either way it seems that any number of the four freshmen coming into the season could find themselves thrust into the two deep as Wake works out any and all combinations in an attempt to get some stability on the line.

Wake did get some good news recently as senior running back Josh Harris was reinstated into the program after an academic mishap. Harris is the leading returning rusher (608 yards last fall) and he immediately slots in as the starting back in a rotation which was looking decidedly thin. The running game will also be given a boost if Price can find a way to do more with his legs out of certain sets to keep the defense off balance. While he isn't ever going to be confused with a dual threat quarterback Wake will be better if Price throws the ball 100 times less this fall and adds value with his movement.

Conclusion: The focus on the run will make this line better instantly as they are not asked to match up one on one with the best pass rushers in the conference so often. If the running game clicks the Deacs should be able to avoid the lopsided score lines from last fall and be in more games deep into the second half. Having said all that the Vanderbilt defense should be good enough to shut down anything that Wake throws at them and give the offense opportunities to score on a short field.

DEFENSE: The Wake defense is far better than they showed in the 55 point blitzkrieg Vandy put on them in the corresponding fixture last season. The team is anchored by the most dominant sub 275 pound nose tackle you will ever see in two time All-ACC standout Nikita Whitlock. The senior was as good as ever last year as he used his lack of height to his advantage and played with outstanding leverage on his way to 51 tackles (5.5 for a loss). The Deacons defensive line is actually loaded with upperclassmen as the 3-4 system also boasts senior ends in Kris Redding and Zach Thompson. This is a serviceable, if generally inexplosive group.

The linebackers are okay, but they need to find a way to develop more of a pass rush from the outside guys. Wake finished just inside the top 60 nationally in sacks and tackles for a loss in 2012 and they lost Joey Ehrmann (3.5 sacks) from that group. Senior Justin Jackson (81 tackles and 4 sacks) is the team's best pure edge rusher, but for Wake to be effective he will have to look to double his sack total this fall. The secondary should be better after an alarming decline last year. If junior cornerback Merrill Noel can stay healthy he is as good as anyone at his position in the ACC.

Conclusion: So this defense will be better, but it could hardly be worse after the unit (much like the entire Wake team) just fell apart at the end of 2012. Vanderbilt should not go into this game expecting to hang another 55 points on the Deacons, but if the 'Dores take care of the football and take what the defense gives them then they are going to score plenty of points. Offensively Vandy is just better than the players they will be lined up against and unless an unexpected pass rush emerges then the passing game should be able to pick on the cornerbacks as plays will have forever to develop.

Other Factors: Outside of all-conference punter Alexander Kinal the special teams unit was one of the worst in the country in 2012. Wake finished last in the ACC in kickoff returns, seventh in punt returns and last in field goals made and field-goal percentage. In addition the sieve like Wake coverage teams gave up four touchdowns in the return game. Unless things drastically changed over the summer this is an area where Vandy will have a huge advantage.

Conclusion: In some ways Wake are a cautionary tale of what can happen if a high academics school falls behind on the recruiting trail. Wake is not too far removed from winning eight games a season, but recruiting rankings in the low 60s for the past four years have starved the team of difference making talent. In 2012 Wake fell apart down the stretch due to the lack of able bodies during a grueling season. Unless the dozens of freshmen coming in step up to take some of that weight it is easy to see a scenario where that happens again in 2013. All this considered this should be a convincing 'Dores win.

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