We’re in the home stretch now, about a week out from the Birmingham Bowl, where the Wake Forest Demon Deacons will take on the Memphis Tigers at the historic Legion Field. As was the trend with Wake Forest football this season, and especially in the Belk Bowl last year, this could be a very high-scoring game. Memphis finished fourth in the nation in rushing, averaging 286 yards per game along with a quality passing attack, while Wake Forest puts up an average of 443 total yards per game.
So, we’ve been able to watch and read about the Wake Forest team’s ins and outs this season, but what has Memphis been up to? Well, for starters, they played in the American Athletic Conference championship game against powerhouse UCF and played them closely. In fact, they had five losses this season and two were to UCF. The other losses came against a stout SEC team in Missouri, Navy and Tulane. That Tulane game is interesting to look at, as the Deacons just squeaked by the Green Wave to open the season.
In terms of personnel, the game will be dramatically changed given the decision of Darrell Henderson regarding whether or not to play. If he is to play, the Memphis offense will rely heavily on the run game and the star power of Henderson. Luckily for the Tigers, Patrick Taylor still puts up a talented running attack. Additionally, their quarterback, Brady White, is capable of playing well through the air. The transfer from Arizona State stepped in and assisted the squad with 3,125 yards, 25 touchdowns and eight picks. If the Wake Forest defense has a down day against the run game, look for an explosive number of yards on the ground and for Memphis to ride this to the end.
One thing that will make an impact for Memphis is personnel that they have lost in the weeks between the season and the game. The team lost their defensive coordinator, Chris Ball, who is the new head of the Northern Arizona team. They also lost their offensive coordinator, Kenny Dillingham, who is set to to be the next offensive coordinator at Auburn. Finally, All-American running back Henderson announced on Dec. 12 that he was going to enter the NFL Draft. It is uncertain whether or not he is going to play in the bowl game or not, but regardless that has to be weighing on their minds. I presume he will not be playing in the game to ensure his health going into the draft. Their defense has been very good all year, but where do you go now with the loss of your coordinator? There has to be some growing pains.
On the other side of things, the few weeks off have been very helpful for healing an injury-plagued team at Wake Forest. Matthew Colburn, an important piece of the run game, looks to make his return in his last game as a Demon Deacon at Legion Field. Amari Henderson will also return at corner, which will exponentially help the Deacons defense. DJ Taylor is fully healthy and first on the depth chart as Mike LB, which is a good sign at the already-thin linebacker position. Ryan Smenda Jr. also returned to the depth chart which is useful.
On the other hand, at the first practice after final exams, Greg Dortch was listed as an ‘or’ on the depth chart which would potentially mean that his health is a factor as a starter or that he might be declaring for the draft. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out until the start of the game. This is the factor to watch going into the game, as Dortch brings an important spark to the offense.
While the Wake Forest offense has gone up and down this year, when the offense is good, it’s been really good. There were five games with 250 rushing yards or more and nine of the 12 games saw the 200-yard passing mark hit. In the must-win game against Duke, the offense obliterated the Blue Devils for 340 yards on the ground and four passing scores. Against NC State, the offense totalled close to 300 yards and three touchdowns.
The Demon Deacons will have to capitalize on a Memphis defense that sometimes struggles against good offenses. Wake Forest has to pounce early and often, and try to wear down the defense like UCF and Missouri did against the Tigers. Penalties should also be important, which should work in Wake Forest’s favor, as one of the tightest teams in the nation in terms of penalties. As Clawson preaches, it’ll be important to win the turnover battle and penalty battle. If the Demon Deacons offense is on, they can ride the explosive offense all the way to victory.In the end, I see this game going in Wake Forest’s favor. There has been too much turnover at Memphis to have this game go as seamlessly as they would hope. Additionally, they left the UCF game feeling defeated and with a sour taste in their mouths, whereas Wake Forest left Duke on a high note and excited for what’s to come. Not playing in a championship game also gave the Demon Deacons more rest and more of an ability to focus on what the team needs to do prior to scouting Memphis. Statistically, the Demon Deacons are just better in bowl games in recent past. The Demon Deacons have won their last two, against Temple and Texas A&M. On the other side, Memphis has been a bowl game disaster recently, partly because it’s usually playing up, but overall just not performing ideally. They have lost their last three, and five of their last six with the last win coming in 2014 in the Miami Beach Bowl against BYU. As with all Wake Forest games, it’s probably best to bet to over. The Demon Deacons are supposed to be underdogs by about a touchdown according to Vegas, but I think that is way too high. I see this being a close game, but going in the Demon Deacons’ favor late in the game. I predict Wake Forest will win 52-42.