A new era will kick off for Old Dominion football on Friday night when head coach Ricky Rahne leads the Monarchs into Winston-Salem to open the 2021 campaign against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Friday will truly mark a number of firsts, as the matchup will not only be the Monarchs’ first under Rahne — with the school electing to cancel its 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic — but also their first-ever meeting with the Demon Deacons.
Old Dominion hired Rahne to right the ship after three consecutive sub-.500 seasons from 2017 to 2019, which followed a remarkable run of seven of eight seasons (2009-16) above .500 — including three with at least 10 wins. The Monarchs have won just 12 games in the last three seasons combined, culminating in a dismal 1-11 record in 2019. ODU opened that campaign with a 24-21 home win over FCS Norfolk State but failed to score that many points while losing 11 straight games.
Wake Forest is coming off of a 2020 campaign that could certainly be described as a roller-coaster of a season. The Demon Deacons dropped their opener to Clemson at home and lost the following week by three points at NC State but rattled off four straight wins, three of them against ACC foes. After its bye week, though, Wake Forest lost a 59-53 shootout at North Carolina and what became its regular-season finale (due to pandemic-related cancellations) at Louisville before a 42-28 loss to Wisconsin in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl at the end of December.
Old Dominion at Wake Forest
When: Fri., Sept. 3 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Wake Forest -31.0
When Old Dominion Has the Ball
The Monarchs’ struggles to move the ball and find the end zone in 2019 could be attributed to a variety of factors. Old Dominion was one of just seven programs nationally to rush for fewer than 100 yards per game, and all of these teams finished with a losing record. The passing game wasn't much better, and it's still not known who will get the start under center. Hayden Wolff, Stone Smartt, and UCF transfer D.J. Mack Jr. have been competing for the job all summer and into fall camp. Mack, a Norfolk native, could be the most intriguing candidate after accounting for 16 total touchdowns (nine passing, seven rushing) across 17 games for the Knights from 2018-19.
Whoever gets the starting nod should be able to surpass the team’s 2019 total of five touchdown passes, but that quarterback will first need to mesh with what projects to be a fairly young and inexperienced group of receivers. On the ground, Blake Watson — whose brother Brad played at Wake Forest — will likely lead a group that mustered just 97 rushing yards per game in 2019, while also providing a threat in the return game. Two seasons ago, Watson was named Honorable Mention All-Conference USA and to the All-Freshman team as a kick returner after averaging 26.4 yards per return.
Wake Forest had its struggles on defense last season, allowing 435.7 yards and 32.8 points per game. The Demon Deacons finished last in the ACC in sacks but managed seven tackles for a loss per game, which ranked in the top 30 nationally. Old Dominion would be wise to keep an eye on Athlon Sports’ preseason second-team All-ACC selection Nick Andersen, who burst onto the scene as a freshman and was awarded third-team All-ACC honors by the conference and by Phil Steele and a fourth-team selection from the coaches in 2020. A four-sport athlete in high school, Andersen tied for the ACC lead (and tied for eighth in FBS) with four interceptions while leading the team with 47 solo tackles.
When Wake Forest Has the Ball
After failing to get much offense going against Clemson in last season's opener, the Demon Deacons scored 20 or more points in their eight remaining games and went over 30 in five of those contests Such high-powered offense was due in no small part to Wake Forest’s success through the air, led by Sam Hartman’s 247.1 passing yards per game, good for a top-five finish in the conference and a top-30 mark nationally. A key to watch is the vertical element from Wake's offense, which was on display throughout 2020. Hartman averaged more than a first down (13.99 yards) per completion, which trailed only Sam Howell and Jordan Travis among ACC quarterbacks.
Hartman formed a strong connection with a number of pass catchers, none more productive than Jaquarii Roberson, who led the team — and was among the conference leaders — across the board. His 6.9 receptions and 102.9 yards per game led the ACC and were 14th-best in the country, while his eight touchdown grabs were second only to Zay Flowers in the conference and landed Roberson in the top 20 overall. The aerial production was needed, as the Demon Deacons' ground game finished in the middle of the back both in the ACC and FBS at 163.0 rushing yards per game. Christian Beal-Smith and Kenneth Walker III carried the load, combining for 153.7 yards per game. There will be no repeat performance from this duo, however, as Walker transferred to Michigan State in the offseason. Beal-Smith led the team last season with 732 rushing yards (5.2 ypc), but he'll need to find a way to get into the end zone more after accounting for three rushing touchdowns (Walker had 13, which tied for him in the ACC).
Even though Old Dominion’s offense failed to put many points on the board in 2019, the defense did its share by holding six of its 12 opponents under 30 points, though it did so only twice on the road. The Monarchs will need to replace two of their top tacklers from that unit. Leading tackler Lawrence Garner (5.6 solo tackles per game — 2nd in C-USA, 15th in FBS) has moved on, while Keion White (1.6 TFLs per game — 4th in C-USA, 7th in FBS) transferred to Georgia Tech.
It's been more than 21 months since Old Dominion played a game, and the hope is that new head coach Ricky Rhane, his staff, and a remade roster can inject some new life into a struggling program. But this is Year 8 for Wake Forest under head coach Dave Clawson, and the Demon Deacons simply have too much continuity and talent. Monarchs finally shake off some rust but will have to wait at least one more week to pick up their first win since Aug. 31, 2019.
Prediction: Wake Forest 34, Old Dominion 20
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.