If you're Wake Forest, you have to be feeling pretty good about a few things. Sure, you lost to No. 1 Clemson last Saturday, but you know you will not have to face a team that good again this season. So it's all downhill from here. Oh, and you're also the only program in the country that has hosted ESPN's "College GameDay" this season. So there's that.
But now comes NC State, who the Demon Deacons beat 44-10 last season. The main similarity between these two teams is that both of them enter Saturday's matchup winless. The Wolfpack sat home last weekend after their initially scheduled opener against Virginia Tech was moved to Sept. 26 because of COVID-19 concerns and got to watch the Wake Forest get waxed by the Tigers. Who does this give an advantage to? NC State for getting to see the Deacons play? Or Wake Forest for getting some reps in and a chance to knock off some rust?
Wake Forest at NC State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Wake Forest -2.5
When Wake Forest Has the Ball
Greenhorns vs. greenhorns. With NC State LB Louis Acceus announcing earlier this week that he won't play this season due to medical reasons, that leaves both the Wolfpack defense and the Wake Forest offense with very few returning starters, so there will be a large amount of inexperience on the field. Look for a lot of mental mistakes and blown assignments to decide who wins this unit-on-unit showdown. And with the Demon Deacons playing a game already, the advantage goes to them.
Develop some playmakers. Wake Forest not only lost starting quarterback Jamie Newman to transfer (Georgia, before opting out), they also are down five of the team's top six targets, including No. 1 wide receiver Sage Surratt, who opted out a few weeks ago. Though they don't stretch the field as much, Taylor Morin, Donovan Greene and Jaquari Roberson had a few nice catches last week against Clemson, finishing the game with 16 receptions for 261 yards and the Deacons' lone touchdown. And even though Christian Beal-Smith got just 11 carries because the offense was in catch-up mode all night, he showed some grit and toughness when given the ball. With a less daunting defense to face, Wake should be able to string a few drives and produce some offensive fireworks of its own this week.
They should be movin' and groovin'. Despite the outcome, Wake actually had some bright spots in the loss to Clemson. Sure, quarterback Sam Hartman was harassed and harangued for most of the game, but he was a freshman in 2018 and was fourth in the ACC in total offense before suffering a season-ending injury in early November. So he has some ability to lead the offense to greener pastures. Also keep in mind, NC State has just three starters back from a defense which gave up 30 points a game last season and had no spring practice to gel as a unit.
When NC State Has the Ball
Bam! The Wolfpack should be much improved on offense this season, led by sophomore running back Zonovan "Bam" Knight, who ran for 745 yards while averaging 5.5 yards per carry last season. Four of five starters are back along the offensive line, along with two guys returning from injury in tackles Justin Witt and Tyrone Riley. With one of the stronger fronts in the ACC and new offensive coordinator Tim Beck still getting a feel for his personnel, look for the Pack to lean on the ground game early on.
The comfort level of Devin Leary. On the other hand, Leary must settle in and make the passing game a big factor in this one. He'll have that aforementioned experienced O-line coming back to protect him. But it didn't go without notice that Wake Forest defensive end Carlos "Boogie" Basham Jr. sacked Trevor Lawrence for a 16-yard loss on the third play of the game, his 19th straight game with a tackle for a loss. Basham was second in the ACC in sacks and tackles for a loss last season. With the strength and depth of the Demon Deacons' defensive line, the guys on the other side of the line of scrimmage must do their part to keep Leary safe in the pocket to help the offense effectively operate and put points on the board.
The ball hawks. Basham won't be the only worry for this Wolfpack offense. Sophomore safety Zion Keith was credited with 12 tackles (nine solo) and senior linebacker Ja'Cquez Williams 10 (eight solo) in the loss to Clemson. With nine total returning starters on that side of the ball, Wake Forest's defense should be pretty solid, regardless of how things went against the Tigers.
Again, the good news for the Demon Deacons is that they will not play a game against a better team for the rest of the season, so this matchup with NC State will feel more like a vacation compared to that Clemson squad they faced last Saturday.
And of course, we all know what they say about a team having its biggest improvement between week one and week two, right? That's where Wake Forest is now. Big advantages to the visiting Deacons on both counts.
Prediction: Wake Forest 24, NC State 14
Podcast: The Big Ten Returns & Week 3 Preview
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.
(Top photo by Gene Galin/NC State Athletics)