With bowl eligibility on the line for Wake Forest (5-6, 3-5 ACC) the Demon Deacons will face a tough challenge from Vanderbilt (7-4, 5-3 SEC) in the regular season finale.
Deacons Illustrated discussed the game with VandySports.com publisher Chris Lee.
What strides has the program taken in James Franklin's second year at the helm? "Bigger ones than anyone imagined. Had you told me after the beat-down that Wake administered to Vandy in 2010 that VU would be in a bowl game the following year, have a chance to potentially win nine games in 2012, and have a near-top-25 recruiting class, followed by a top-15 recruiting class (although that's obviously not finished yet), I'd have advised you to consult the Yellow Pages for the nearest nut house nearby."
"Beyond that, I think VU has shown a commitment to facilities and coaches that can help keep Franklin here. VU is now building a new indoor practice facility, and given Franklin a long-term contract rumored to be in the neighborhood of $3-3.5 million per year."
"It truly has been an amazing transformation."
Vanderbilt has won five games in a row after a 2-4 start. What changed for the Commodores? "It's pretty simple: the schedule. Excepting the Georgia game, Vandy didn't play poorly in those first six games; it's just that they lost to three top-12 teams in this week's Coaches' Poll (plus a Northwestern team that just missed the rankings)."
"You could kind of see this coming, because after that Florida game, Vandy faced three poor teams in a row (Auburn, UMass, Kentucky), had a winnable road game against Ole Miss (which it won), and got Tennessee at home in a down year (and beat the Vols worse than the score indicated). As you know in college football, it's sometimes just as important to catch a break as it is to be good; VU was a good team when it was 2-4, but that schedule has made all the difference."
James Franklin is known for his prowess as an offensive coach, so what do you think worked best for the Dores on that side of the ball this season? "I think the key is balance. VU has a very good back in Zac Stacy and he's a threat to go over 100 yards any week when he's healthy (which has been an issue at times this season). I think we figured this would be the strength of the team, but the passing attack may be a little more potent right now because quarterback Jordan Rodgers is playing very well (and not making the mistakes that plagued him a year ago) and VU has two tremendous wide-outs in Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews."
"Throw in an improving (though beat-up) offensive line, and Vandy's tougher to defend right now because you can't really play for one thing at the expense of another."
What can Wake Forest expect from Vandy schematically on the defensive side of the ball? "It's not a unit with a lot of stars, and it's not a unit that forces a lot of turnovers, but it's a solid unit that plays quite well as a team. VU has a lot of depth on the line and quality depth in the secondary (and two corners in Andre Hal and Trey Wilson who are tough to throw against). The question all along has been linebacker; the starters are fine but VU had almost no depth at the beginning of the season, but now that true freshmen Darreon Heriring and Jake Sealand have emerged, VU is fine there, too."
"One thing that makes this unit so good is coaching. Coordinator Bob Shoop is one of the best around and he's kept teams off-balance by blitzing anyone from anywhere at just about any time. VU made Tennessee's Tyler Bray look awful last week with all the pressure, which I don't think anyone expected."
We know the household names like Jordan Matthews, Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy, but who else should Wake be on the lookout for and why? "If you started to name the team's best players, those three would certainly be in the top five. As for others... Boyd, who lines up opposite Matthews, is emerging as a star and a definite big-play guy. Offensively, left tackle Wes Johnson is a very underrated player who can play any spot on the line. If you're looking for a sleeper, backup running back Brian Kimbrow is an absolute jet and if he gets behind the linebackers and even with the safeties, he'll win that footrace every time."
"Defensively, tackle Jared Morse has been very good, and Walker May is the team's best pass-rusher at end, though true freshman backup Caleb Azubike may be catching him quickly."
Do you think Vanderbilt may be due for a letdown after such a strong surge that includes a blowout win over rival Tennessee? Is there any chance the Commodores show up flat Saturday? "I think it's unlikely. One thing that Franklin has done exceptionally well is get the team to show up every week, no matter who's on the schedule. The team's one true bad game came against Georgia, but that was a team that's one of the 2-3 most talented teams in the country, and they caught a fired-up Bulldog team playing its "A" game."
"Franklin has been insistent that focus be on the game ahead, to the point that he refuses to answer any questions about what's behind or what's ahead in the coming weeks with the exception of briefly touching on the previous week's game. As he's said a thousand times, "our goal is to go 1-0 this week," and I think that approach has paid dividends."
What is Vandy's injury report, and significant of impact do you expect it to have? "You may know that about as well as I do! Franklin will not discuss injuries and closes practice for all but 10 minutes each week, so we're mostly left to guess."
"However, I'm not sure if starting right tackle Andrew Bridges is healthy, and the same can be said for reserve lineman Spencer Pulley, who started the year at center. I suspect they're ailing on the offensive line more than Franklin would let on, and they're thin there to begin with."
"Other than that, the only possible concern I know about is kicker Carey Spear; he hurt himself when he absolutely walloped a UT return man (it made ESPN's Plays of the Day), but I suspect he's okay. But again, it's easily possible that there are injuries we don't know about due to the nature of the information we get."