Wake Forest's era as a legitimate ACC contender seemingly had come and gone.
Sure, the Demon Deacons won the conference title in 2006 and earned bowl bids each of the next two seasons, but they posted losing records each of the past two seasons as they struggled to find replacements for departed four-year starting quarterback Riley Skinner, Butkus Award winner Aaron Curry and ACC career interceptions leader Alphonso Smith. Last season's team fell all the way to 3-9 and landed in the Atlantic Division basement.
The ACC's little team that could suddenly couldn't. Wake was an overwhelming pick to finish at the bottom of the Atlantic again this season, and there was a sense around the conference that it had returned to its customary status as a league also-ran.
The Deacons never bought into that logic, and here they are tied with Clemson for first place in the Atlantic.
"I don't really think we've surprised ourselves," sophomore quarterback Tanner Price said. "Our team has always been very talented. We knew we were a good team. The biggest thing last year is we were very young and lacked experience.
"I think we've definitely surprised other people, like the fans and such. But we've always been very confident in ourselves and believed we were a great team."
They've rebounded from a heartbreaking loss at Syracuse in their opener to win three consecutive games. A victory Saturday over Florida State would give Wake its first-ever 3-0 start in conference play.
Even though Wake Forest is on a three-game winning streak and Florida State has dropped two straight, the Seminoles head into BB&T Field as 11.5-point favorites. The oddsmakers won't get any arguments from Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe.
"We're going to have to play a little above our head, I think, to get this one," Grobe said.
Of course, the Deacons already have overachieved quite a bit. Few quarterbacks across the country have improved as much as Price. After throwing eight interceptions and seven touchdown passes as a true freshman last season, Price already has matched his 2010 season total in touchdown passes while getting picked off just twice. He has thrown for at least 250 yards in each of his first four games.
Price has benefited from the emergence of Chris Givens, who has caught 27 passes for 498 yards and four touchdowns. No Wake Forest player ever had accumulated that many receiving yards through the first four games of a season.
Wake also has made dramatic strides on defense, though the Deacons have struggled to put teams away. Wake Forest ranked 110th in scoring defense (35.8) and 101st in total defense (430.7) last season. This season, the Deacons rank 41st in scoring defense (21.8) and 20th in total defense (299.5).
Before the season, the Deacons set a goal of earning a bowl bid. At the time, it seemed rather ambitious for a team coming off a 3-9 season. Not anymore.
"We wanted to get back to a bowl game to prove to our fans and the ACC that we can compete in this conference, that we're a skilled team and one of the better teams in the ACC," Price said. "I don't think a lot of people had confidence in us. We were ranked last in the conference going into the season. A lot of people doubted our capabilities. As a team, we used that as motivation to prove some people wrong."
The first night of the season justified Wake Forest's skeptics.
Wake Forest blew a 15-point lead at Syracuse after Price got hurt in the fourth quarter. The Deacons gave up two touchdowns in the final 8:30 of regulation and lost 36-29 in overtime.
The Deacons never recovered from similarly devastating losses to Navy and Georgia Tech last season. This season's team found a way to bounce back.
"I think the biggest thing in that game is we saw the potential we had," Price said. "Unfortunately, we weren't able to finish the game, but it showed us we were a much better team this year and could compete against good teams and in the ACC."
It also showed that Wake plays at an entirely different level when Price is on the field.
Wake Forest's collapse against Syracuse occurred after Price's departure. The Deacons still haven't lost a game he's been able to finish. Price, from Austin (Texas) Westlake, showed his moxie last week while directing a fourth-quarter drive in a 27-19 victory at Boston College.
The Deacons were clinging to a 24-19 lead and facing third-and-15 from their 15 with less than six minutes remaining when Price found Terence Davis for a 44-yard completion. That third-down conversion helped set up a 22-yard field goal.
"He's the key," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "Anytime a quarterback can make those kinds of decisions and those big-time throws just like he did last week on third-and-15 to get them right back out of there - the things he did - he's a playmaker."
Those also are the kinds of plays that separate good teams from bad ones - and that distinguish this year's Wake Forest team from last year's model.
"I think last year we got to the point where things had gone so badly that kids almost expect bad things to happen," Grobe said. "When you're winning, you expect the opposite. You're going to make the plays and do things you need to do to win the game. That's kind of where we are right now."
As long as Price stays healthy, that confidence shouldn't go away.
BEST MATCHUP: Miami RB Lamar Miller vs. Virginia Tech run defense. Miller ranks eighth nationally at 127.8 rushing yards per game. He has exceeded the 100-yard mark in each of Miami's first four games and has averaged 6.7 yards per carry. Miller will face his toughest test Saturday against a Virginia Tech defense that ranks second in the nation against the run. The Hokies are allowing just 58.2 rushing yards per game and 2.1 yards per carry. No individual has run for more than 47 yards against Virginia Tech this season. Virginia Tech could be more vulnerable against the run than usual Saturday as it plays its first game without starting DT Antoine Hopkins, who tore the ACL in his right knee last week. Hopkins' injury likely will force true freshman Corey Marshall into the starting lineup. Miller also has succeeded against this defense before, as he ran for 163 yards on just 15 carries in a 31-17 loss to the Hokies last season.
PLAYERS ON THE SPOT: Maryland RBs Davin Meggett and Justus Pickett. Maryland's best chance of beating Georgia Tech is to control the clock and keep the Yellow Jackets' explosive offense on the sideline. Georgia Tech showed it was vulnerable against the run in last week's 45-35 victory over North Carolina State by allowing the Wolfpack to rush for 195 yards on 38 carries in a 45-35 victory. North Carolina State had been held to minus-26 rushing yards against Cincinnati a week earlier and ranks 101st nationally at 107.0 rushing yards per game. The Wolfpack don't have a running back the caliber of Meggett, who has rushed for 327 yards and is averaging more than five yards per carry this season. Meggett got some help last week from Pickett, a freshman who rushed for 82 yards on 14 carries in a 28-3 victory over Towson. If the Terps don't run the ball effectively Saturday, they won't win this game.
KEEP AN EYE ON: North Carolina TB Gio Bernard. This dynamic redshirt freshman already is the first North Carolina player to rush for at least 100 yards in three consecutive games since Natrone Means in 1992. He is seeking to become the first Tar Heel to reach the 100-yard mark in four consecutive games since 1984, when Ethan Horton actually accomplished that feat in five consecutive games. Bernard won't have an easy time getting to 100 yards against Louisville's 13th-ranked run defense. The Cardinals are allowing just 85 rushing yards per game and 2.2 yards per carry. Then again, they also haven't faced a running back nearly as good as Bernard, whose brother, Yvenson, was a tailback at Oregon State.
NUMBERS GAME: Youth is served in the ACC. Twenty-one true freshmen or redshirt freshmen in the ACC have scored 47 touchdowns through the first five weeks of the season. None of the other FBS conferences has received that many touchdowns from freshmen. The SEC ranks second with 37 freshmen touchdowns, and the Pac-12 is third with 35. The Mid-American Conference, Big East and Big Ten each have 29 touchdowns from freshmen.
"I think his mistakes come where he feels he knows it too much and he trusts his receivers to be there, and sometimes they're not there. He sometimes throws the ball a little blindly. He gets a little reckless sometimes when under pressure, so that's what kind of costs them. We're hoping to get three [interceptions] again this year, maybe more." - Virginia Tech CB Jayron Hosley, discussing Miami QB Jacory Harris to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Harris didn't play against Virginia Tech last year, but he went 9-of-25 for 150 yards with an interception and no touchdown passes in a 31-7 loss to Virginia Tech two years ago. Stephen Morris threw three interceptions in the Hurricanes' 31-17 loss to the Hokies last season
"I'll have my 10½ [size] shoe up their tail if they come out dragging. I don't mind being the biggest rear end there is." - Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, telling The (Charleston) Post and Courier how he'd make sure the undefeated Tigers avoid complacency
"Everybody was wanting to crown him the next whoever. That's not right. That's not fair. Now, do we expect big things? Absolutely. I expect him to make every throw. I know in my mind that he won't make every throw. So as coaches, you try to keep it in perspective and not let the hype and the over-expectations get out of range." - Virginia Tech quarterback coach Mike O'Cain, discussing QB Logan Thomas with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Thomas has thrown five interceptions and two touchdown passes in his past four games
"If you walk around some of these high schools, there are basketball players walking around at 6-4 and 6-5 that think they're point guards. They can't handle the ball, and they get frustrated. And they start playing football. The football coach has them out there, and they're raw. I think in this state, you have to be patient because there are some of those guys out there, and you have to take a chance on them and say you're going to develop them. That's what we've done. We've taken some guys that are tall and long and got them here in our strength and conditioning program, and they've become good players for us in a year, two years, whatever." - North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers, discussing how his team has found so many quality defensive linemen from the state of North Carolina. Six of the Tar Heels' nine first- or second-team defensive linemen are from North Carolina. The list of North Carolina products includes projected early-round picks Quinton Coples, Tydreke Powell and Donte Paige-Moss
POLL WATCH: Clemson is ranked eighth in both polls, which should cause at least some concern for superstitious Tigers fans. In each of the past two weeks, the No. 8 team in the nation has lost. Texas A&M fell to Oklahoma State two weeks ago, while Nebraska lost to Wisconsin last week. Of course, it's also worth noting that the No. 8 team lost to a higher-ranked opponent each of those weeks, while Clemson is facing a 1-4 Boston College team.
ETC.: The news keeps getting worse for Boston College. After rushing for 108 yards against Wake Forest last week, TB Montel Harris will miss Saturday's game with Clemson. Harris had an MRI that revealed some swelling in his left knee. An injury to that knee already had caused him to miss the Eagles' first three games. Harris' performance against Wake Forest last week gave him 3,735 yards, making him the Eagles' leading career rusher. Derrick Knight rushed for 3,725 yards at Boston College from 2000-03. ... Five of the past six Boston College-Clemson games have been decided by seven or fewer points. Clemson enters this week's meeting with Boston College as a 21-point favorite. ... Duke WR Conner Vernon caught eight passes for 117 yards in a 31-27 victory over Florida International last week to give him nine career 100-yard games, tying Wes Chesson for second place on the school's career list. Vernon remains a long way from the school record. Clarkston Hines had 17 career 100-yard receiving games, the most in ACC history. ... The off-week gave Florida State QB E.J. Manuel a chance to heal. After a sprained AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder forced him to sit out a 35-30 loss to Clemson on Sept. 24, Manuel expects to play Saturday against Wake Forest. ... Georgia Tech has won its first five games, but the Yellow Jackets apparently aren't satisfied. Georgia Tech has re-opened its competition at the B-back position. David Sims started the first four games at that spot and has rushed for 349 yards and three touchdowns on 52 carries. Sims will be competing with Preston Lyons and Charles Perkins for the starting spot. ... Maryland coach Randy Edsall owns an all-time record of 1-17 against ranked opponents. Maryland's next three games come against Georgia Tech (No. 13 in both polls), Clemson (No. 8 in both polls) and Florida State (No. 23 in the AP poll, No. 22 in the coaches' poll). ... Miami has lost LB Ramon Buchanan and DT Marcus Forston to season-ending knee injuries. Jordan Futch will replace Buchanan in the starting lineup. ... Miami SS Ray Ray Armstrong will make his 2011 debut Saturday after being suspended for the first four games of the season amid allegations that he received illegal benefits from former booster Nevin Shapiro. Armstrong earned second-team All-ACC honors last season. ... North Carolina is outscoring teams 42-3 in the first quarter this season. ... North Carolina State FB Taylor Gentry, H-Back Curtis Underwood and P Wil Baumann are hoping to return from injuries to play Saturday against Central Michigan. DE A.J. Ferguson, RB Mustafa Greene, LB Terrell Manning, DE Jeff Rieskamp, DT Brian Slay and DT Thomas Teal remain sidelined. ... Virginia CB Chase Minnifield recorded his 11th career interception last week, which ranks him second among active ACC players and in a tie for fourth among all active FBS players. Ball State's Sean Baker leads all active FBS players with 17 interceptions, while Virginia Tech's Jayron Hosley tops active ACC defenders with 12. ... Virginia Tech's David Wilson and Miami's Lamar Miller are the ACC's two leading rushers. A look at Virginia Tech's track record suggests Saturday's game with Miami will come down to which of those two running backs has a better day. Since the start of the 1999 season, Virginia Tech is 113-11 when it outrushes an opponent and is 12-26 when it gets outrushed. ... Virginia Tech's 23-3 loss to Clemson barely kept alive the Hokies' streak of 208 games in which they've scored, a string that leads the ACC and ranks sixth among all FBS programs. The Hokies haven't been shut out since a 16-0 loss to Cincinnati in 1995, which also marked the last time they had failed to reach the end zone in a home game before last week. ... Wake Forest's BB&T Field will debut a new high-definition video board Saturday against Florida State. The 22-ton board measures over 90 feet high and 145 feet wide.