It's hard to believe that it's been six full seasons since Wake Forest shocked the ACC by winning the league in 2006. It's even harder to believe that it's been four seasons since head coach Jim Grobe and the Deacons have had a winning season.
Rather than leaving for a bigger job after his success, Grobe stayed in Winston-Salem. It's hard to win at Wake Forest, and the fact Grobe has been able to do that speaks more to his acumen. And so it's understandable that he bristles at the notion his program has leveled out.
"I really don't know that our program has leveled off," Grobe said. "These past 2-3 years, we had chances in 3-4 games each year to go the other way with it and maybe get another win or two. So we're not far away from eight (wins). But we're in that middle range where the ball bounces right, you're a 7-8 win team. Ball doesn't bounce right, you're a five-win team. That's kind of where we are right now."
If there's a concern, it's that Wake Forest just hasn't looked as competitive as it used to. The Deacons' seven losses came by an average of 28 points last year, their worst average margin of defeat since winning that ACC title. The 2010 team that went 3-9 lost nine games by an average of 24.7, but it had three losses by ten points or fewer.
Wake was beaten by 30 or more points four times in 2012. Excluding the 2010 season, that has happened just three times in the other four seasons since the Deacs won the title. The 52-0 loss at Florida State was Wake's worst under Grobe.
And a big reason Wake Forest wasn't competitive was that its offense was woeful. Woeful might be putting it kindly. The Deacs were 117th nationally in total offense and ranked either 11th or 12th in the league in nearly every major offensive category.
The numbers are what they are: Wake had 28 offensive touchdowns. Three ACC quarterbacks had that many or more passing touchdowns alone. And Clemson, the league's most explosive offense, had more than double (66).
"It was really difficult for me because it didn't look like one of our football teams at the end of the year. We weren't very physical," Grobe said. "It just was a bad football team by the end of the year, just kind of embarrassing for me personally because that's my football team. We've just got to get back to being more aggressive being tougher, all those kinds of things."
Under Grobe, the Deacs have developed an identity as a team that will not hurt themselves. And they didn't last year, so that isn't even an excuse for the bad offense. Wake led the ACC in turnover margin at 8 and were second in in fewest penalty yards per game.
There's enough experience on the offensive line -- some gained by necessity last year, when a combination of youth and injuries led to a lot of shuffling -- for it to be substantially better. And Grobe is a good enough coach that he can hide a team's weaknesses and adjust his scheme to fit his personnel. And so he's going to get his senior quarterback Tanner Price more involved in the running game, integrating some option into their playbook.
"What we want to do is not necessarily run everybody more, but we want to run (Price) more. Whether it's draws or powers or even some option stuff, however we can best get him involved in the run game because for us, when we were doing all the hand the ball off type stuff, I think it really made it too easy on defenses," Grobe said.
Price showed some ability to run the football as a true freshman in 2010, netting 120 yards rushing and getting sacked just 19 times. He's been sacked 59 times in the last two years and has -- 79 yards on 155 attempts in that span.
But senior wide receiver Michael Campanaro thinks adding that option attack will be key. It puts the onus on opposing defenses to cover it and at least makes them think about it. Which, Campanaro said, would be a welcome change for Price.
"I think what you see with our offense being changed and switching more to option running and some option throwing, it takes a lot of pressure off of offensive linemen and skill guys. Last year and the year before, we were throwing the ball so much that teams were just lining up and they were coming after us," Campanaro said.
"You throw a little option run game in there, they've got to kind of hang back and they've got to play their reads. They can't just be opening holes up or else we might bust one on them. ... It's going to help the offensive line a lot. They're not going to have these (defenders) just rushing them all game long."
Wake Forest returns senior Josh Harris and sophomore Deandre Martin, both of whom showed promise. But he doesn't seem to be too happy with any of them right now, and every running back is going to have to work to get back into Grobe's good graces.
"We've got some guys that are really not showing a lot of maturity right now as far as the workout habits, the classroom habits, a lot of different things," Grobe said. "That running back group is probably the biggest disaster we've got right now. We don't really have a dependable guy right now in that whole group. We'll just kind of see how this works out."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But as Grobe said, he'll give his running backs a chance. If they can't help the team, then he's going to give more carries to his quarterback, or even Campanaro himself (who has 228 yards rushing on 47 attempts in three years).
Campanaro knows that it doesn't matter how Wake Forest is able to run the ball. They just need to do it.
"We're definitely putting an emphasis on running the ball, getting back to having a good running game," Campanaro said. "We haven't run the ball that well the past few years, and if we can get back to really running the ball well it could open things up for the passing game."