One of the more intriguing under-the-radar games of the opening weekend of the 2019 college football season will bring the Utah State Aggies to Tobacco Road to battle the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on Friday night.
Utah State will be led by head coach Gary Andersen, who is back for a second go-around as the head coach of the Aggies, replacing Matt Wells, who left for the Texas Tech job. Andersen takes over a team that went 11-2 in 2018, with the two losses at Michigan State and Boise State coming by a combined 16 points. This won’t be a typical rebuilding project for the coaching staff, but more of a reload as a championship-level culture is already in place in Logan.
Wake Forest had a strong finish to the 2018 season, as the Demon Deacons finished 7-6 after crushing Duke 59-7 in the regular-season finale to earn a bowl bid. Then, Wake Forest outlasted Memphis 37-34 in the Birmingham Bowl, rallying from an 18-point deficit in that game. Head coach Dave Clawson has proved to be a great fit in Winston-Salem, doing a great job of establishing a culture and raising the bar of expectations on and off the field.
Utah State at Wake Forest
Kickoff: Friday, Aug. 30 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Wake Forest -3.5
When Utah State Has the Ball
Jordan Love is back at quarterback and will be the offensive focal point, as he has to lead a group of unproven skill position players, especially at wide receiver. Love accounted for 39 touchdowns in 2018, throwing for 3,567 yards and completed 64 percent of his passes. Gerold Bright should be able to have a nice day against the Demon Deacons defense running the football. Bright rushed for 888 yards and scored 13 touchdowns, 10 of them on the ground. The offensive line will be brand new except for left tackle Alfred Edwards, so it will be important for offensive coordinator Mike Sanford to keep the game plan simple to limit any unnecessary exposure of the offensive line against the Wake Forest defense.
Wake Forest defensive coordinator Lyle Hemphill has some work to do with rebuilding the defensive line and the linebacker corps. Essang Bassey leads a secondary group that will be tested by Love in this matchup, but the Deacons have the ability to keep Utah State’s passing game in check due to their experience and talent advantage. Look for Wake Forest to play the type of game where they may give up some yards and focus on red zone defense to limit the Aggies to kicking field goals as the game rolls along.
When Wake Forest Has the Ball
Expect a very fast pace from the Demon Deacons offensively; they love to keep the hammer down with their tempo and wear you out in the second half of games. Jamie Newman won the starting quarterback job in fall camp over Sam Hartman. Newman stepped up nicely down the stretch of the 2018 season and was a big reason why Wake Forest went to another bowl game. Expect a heavy dose of Cade Carney on the ground against the Aggies behind a solid line that features three returning starters. Carney rushed for 1,005 yards last season. Wide receiver Sage Surratt will be tested against a defensive unit that caused 32 turnovers and scored six touchdowns last fall. Scott Washington should be back healthy as well at wideout to provide a quality 1-2 punch to replace Greg Dortch.
The Aggies bring back seven starters from a defensive unit that will go after the ball like crazy to force turnovers. They also will bring plenty of pressure in this game from their defensive line. Senior defensive end Tipa Galeai had 10.5 sacks in 2018 along with two interceptions and three forced fumbles. He is going to be double-teamed, which will free up the rest of the front to go after Newman all night long. DJ Williams is a ball hawk in the secondary at nickel back as he picked off four passes last season. You can expect to see Williams moved around a bit on Friday night to cover whoever has the hot hand catching the football for Wake Forest in the passing game.
The quarterback battle should cancel itself out, as both Love and Newman should put up some nice numbers on Friday night. Both teams have issues to address with their offensive lines, but the Demon Deacons should be able to do enough at the line of scrimmage to get the job done. Turnovers will be crucial, and if Utah State can win the turnover battle, the Aggies will have a shot to win the game late in the fourth quarter. However, look for Wake Forest to do just enough offensively to wear down the Aggies and pick up its first win of the season.
Prediction: Wake Forest 38, Utah State 34
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.