It was something of a breakthrough year in 2017 for Wake Forest under fourth-year head coach Dave Clawson. The Demon Deacons finished 8-5 for their highest win total in nine years and capped the year with a thrilling Belk Bowl victory over Texas A&M.
Wake Forest will have to replace a number of key veterans that helped bring the program back to respectability and that starts on Thursday night against Tulane. In the third year under head coach Willie Fritz, the Green Wave hope to take the next step and make a bowl game.
Tulane finished just 5-7 a season ago, but hung tough with the likes of Navy, South Florida and SMU. Since 2003, the Green Wave have had just one winning season. They do hold a 2-1 edge all-time over Wake Forest.
Wake Forest at Tulane
Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 30 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Wake Forest -6.5
Three Things to Watch For
1. Sam Hartman
Tasked with replacing four-year starter John Wolford at quarterback for Wake Forest will be Hartman, a freshman. After a slow start to his career, Wolford put it all together last season for an offense that wound up ranking in the top 25 nationally in both total offense and points per game. With expected starter Kendall Hinton suspended for the first three games, Hartman beat out redshirt sophomore Jamie Newman for the starting job, but he will have the challenge of making his debut on the road.
The good news for Hartman is he will have help around him. Tight end Cam Serigne is a significant loss, but leading receiver Greg Dortch and leading rusher Matt Colburn each return. Senior guard Phil Haynes is expected to be one of the best in the conference.
2. Tulane ground attack vs. Wake Forest run defense
If the Green Wave are to pull the home upset on Thursday night, they will need to be able to run the ball. Running back Dontrell Hilliard is off to the NFL, but junior Darius Bradwell is primed for a breakout year. Bradwell finished with 411 yards on the ground last season, but averaged 6.2 yards per carry and found the end zone four times. Bradwell made the most of his carries last season, but is expected to be the feature back in 2018. Senior quarterback Jonathan Banks also will run the football a lot this season after going for nearly 600 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground last season.
Despite having talent, stopping the run wasn’t an area where the Demon Deacons excelled in 2017. Wake Forest yielded more than 190 rushing yards per contest. That was with a defense that included Duke Ejiofor, Jaboree Williams, Jessie Bates and Grant Dawson. All four of those names are now gone, forcing the Demon Deacons to insert a lot of new faces into the lineup. Leading tackler Cameron Glenn, a senior safety, does return.
3. Greg Dortch
After missing the last five games of 2017 with an abdominal injury, Dortch returns as Wake Forest's top target after impressing as a freshman. If he can return to his 2017 form, he may very well be the best wide receiver in the ACC. In just eight games last season, Dortch finished with 53 catches for 722 yards and nine touchdowns. Dortch was tied for or led the team in each of those categories despite playing in just eight games.
Dortch is listed at just 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds but he has plenty of big-play potential. He’ll be facing a Tulane defense that yielded more than 226 passing yards per game last season and ranked 99th in the FBS in pass efficiency defense while allowing 8.5 yards per attempt. The best defender for the Green Wave is senior cornerback Donnie Lewis, who was second on the team with three interceptions.
Tulane will have a huge opportunity to set the tone for the 2018 season with an upset win at Yulman Stadium on Thursday night. The Green Wave are experienced at the quarterback position and talented at the skill positions as well. Wake Forest on the other hand will have to deal with significant attrition as key players like John Wolford, Cam Serigne, Duke Ejiofor and Jessie Bates have all departed while its best offensive player is coming back from a season-ending injury.
The Demon Deacons have won three straight openers and Dave Clawson will have his team ready to play. For Wake to get the win however, freshman quarterback Sam Hartman will have to make plays. Wake Forest won 7-3 in Winston-Salem when the two teams opened the 2016 season against one another. Expect a lot more offense this time around.
Prediction: Wake Forest 36, Tulane 33
(Top photo courtesy of Tulane Athletics)