Wake Forest took a significant step forward last season. The Demon Deacons still have a long way to go.
They're coming off their first winning season and first bowl victory since 2008, and they appear poised to keep progressing in coach Dave Clawson's fourth year.
This looks like their best team under Clawson - but it's still going to be tough to climb much higher in a division that includes league favorite Florida State, defending national champion Clemson and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville.
''They've earned that attention. They deserve that attention,'' Clawson said. ''Do I envision a day that we can be there? Absolutely. Now, how we do that isn't going to be the formula they use. We've got to have our Wake Forest formula. But that is our goal. I mean, if we set a goal any lower than that, we're doing every player in our program a disservice.''
As a self-described developmental program, the Demon Deacons can't reload with immediate-impact recruits like the Tigers and Seminoles can. It takes patience to win at Wake Forest, and after consecutive 3-9 finishes in Clawson's first two years with teams full of young players, the progress finally started to show on the field last season.
The numbers have begun to balance, with five fifth-year seniors and 18 players in their fourth year on the team - four seniors, 14 redshirt juniors. That includes Cam Serigne, possibly the league's best tight end, and five offensive linemen.
''I look around our offense, we're more experienced than we've ever been,'' Serigne said. ''We have more playmakers than we've ever had, and there's way more excitement around the guys, and I really truly have high expectations and high hopes for our offense this year.''
Some things to keep an eye on this upcoming season:
QB QUESTIONS: Junior Kendall Hinton will enter the season as the starting quarterback, after missing the final 10 games of 2016 with a knee injury, but Clawson says senior John Wolford also will work with the first team because both players have dealt with injuries through their careers. ''We don't want to be a two-quarterback system,'' Clawson said. ''We don't want to shuttle guys in and out. Unfortunately, John and Kendall, neither of those guys have been able to stay healthy the past two years.'' Hinton led the Demon Deacons to an upset of Duke but was injured the following week in his first start of the season.
NEW FACE: Clawson hired defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel from Minnesota after Mike Elko took the same position at Notre Dame. A big reason he chose Sawvel was because of his experience running systems with a four-man front. ''We have recruited specifically for a defensive system that we run, so when Mike left, I did not want to blow up the system and start over,'' Clawson said. ''We're going to do things a little bit different. He's got his wrinkles, the way he likes to do things on third down, and we'll bring his personality to our defense. But the base structure of what we do is going to be very similar because that's what fits our personnel.''
KEY GAMES: The Demon Deacons play host to Florida State on Sept. 30, visit Clemson the following week and are home against Louisville on Oct. 28. Knocking off one of the Atlantic Division's heavyweights would legitimize Wake Forest as a serious player in the standings. Also, they would be wise to not look past a tricky trip to nearby Appalachian State the week before the Florida State game.
SEASON OPENER: Wake Forest opens against Presbyterian of the FCS on Aug. 31 before visiting Boston College on Sept. 9.
PREDICTION: Win 7, Lose 5.
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