- Eric Adelson, ESPN The Magazine
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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The banners hung over the dais on New Year's morning at the old Marriott by the causeway, filled with Orange Bowl photos that didn't need captions. Just about any college football fan can identify Charlie Ward, Mike Rozier, Tommie Frazier, Rocket Ismail and Barry Switzer. But how many could name the gray-haired man who sat behind the microphone? How many could recognize a cap-less, headset-less Jim Grobe?
Americans are spending millions this winter to see a fictional tale of an iron-jawed jabber getting into the ring with a free-swinging bruiser. They will spend millions more to be inspired by the resilience of a small-town college football program in the mid-Atlantic. Then, for good measure, they'll watch "Friday Night Lights" on TiVo. And yet so many of those same people will show no interest in watching a real-life drama that is nearly as special as those story lines. Just about everyone believes the FedEx Orange Bowl will be the least-interesting BCS bowl, but few understand that the only game on Jan. 2 offers the best story.
No disrespect to Boise State. Just about everyone in the nation loves the little Idaho team that could. But that little Idaho team isn't so little. Boise State's student population is 18,000. That's not a lot, especially compared to powerhouses like Ohio State and Florida, which have two and three times that many students, but Wake Forest has only a little more than 6,000 students. That includes everyone. Only two Division I-A schools have fewer students. The undergraduate population is around 4,000. That means the football team makes up 2 percent of the campus. If every single living Wake Forest alum went to Tuesday's Orange Bowl, Dolphin Stadium would still sit half-empty. (Kind of like a Marlins game.)
So while the names you know at major powers increasingly have self-contained communities away from the rest of campus, the Demon Deacons usually run in the same circles as as all the other students. "It's a little town of its own," says Louisville coach Bobby Petrino. It's unfair to compare any football program with the tragedy-stricken group depicted in "We Are Marshall," but the setting at Wake Forest is about as close as it gets on the Division I-A level.
"You may see players walking with other students rather than only other athletes," says Grobe. "They have friends beyond the football team."
Granted, small doesn't always mean deprived. Check out the endowment of any Ivy League school for proof. But North Carolina is not teeming with high school football talent, and Wake Forest is in the Orange Bowl with few -- if any -- players who will end up on fantasy football teams. Mel Kiper Jr.'s list of the top five players at each position -- seniors and juniors -- lists exactly one Demon Deacon, junior inside linebacker Jon Abbate, who is coming off an injury. And even he is tied for fifth with J Leman Jr. of Illinois. There have been only 70 Demon Deacons drafted into the NFL. Ever.
Did we mention that Wake lost its starting quarterback, running back and left tackle this season? Here's how offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke explains how redshirt freshman Riley Skinner wound up starting:
"Eight days before the Syracuse game [the first game of the season], Riley was our No. 3 quarterback, and then we had a scrimmage and we had our No. 2 guy get his shoulder knocked out. So Riley was bumped up to 2, started getting some more reps, and then in that third quarter we're sitting there and Riley has got his basketball hat on and he's signaling plays, and all of a sudden Ben [Mauk] goes down. And look over at him and said, 'Hey, Riley, you're going to go in the game.' He goes, 'Oh, I need to go find my helmet.'"
So Grobe's strategy against Louisville (pop. 23,000) is to "get into the fourth quarter with a chance." In other words, go 15 rounds and hope for a decision. That will mean plenty of pressure on Skinner, who will run an offense that once relied on the I-formation, then the option, and now a shotgun passing attack with enough trickeration to make Steve Spurrier look like Woody Hayes.
The defense has it even tougher, facing an offense that puts up 39 points per game behind a quarterback who some tout as the best in college football. Brian Brohm and his two standout receivers, Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia, likely would be in Arizona right now if it wasn't for an offside call on a game-winning kick against Rutgers. The Cards are building a program that has produced two of the NFL's great young players, Elvis Dumervil and Kerry Rhodes. Name Wake's best NFL player. No, Tim Duncan does not play for the Texans. (It's Ricky Proehl.)
Wake relies on brains instead. It uses stunts and shifts and just about any formation it can dream up to confuse faster and stronger opponents. That's how Wake beat Calvin Johnson and Georgia Tech; that's how it beat Lorenzo Booker and Florida State; and that's how it will try to beat Louisville. Well before Louisville's matchup against Wake was set, Petrino decided that "Wake Forest wouldn't be a bad place to visit this spring" for tips on defensive ingenuity. Now Petrino will have to beat that ingenuity. And don't expect smoke and mirrors. Wake will do everything it can to stop the run, and if Brohm throws for 500 yards, so be it. The Demon Deacons know they will take plenty of punches on Tuesday night.
Interested yet? Maybe not. Many will dismiss Wake's appearance in a Jan. 2 game as a sign of parity, or evidence that the ACC had a down year. And maybe next January it'll be back to Florida State or Miami. Even Wake fans see why the AP Coach of the Year would take a job somewhere else this spring. Boise State could have a better shot at lasting on the national scene.
For Wake Forest, there might not be a sequel.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Forget Hollywood movies and TV sitcoms. For a really inspiring tale, check out Wake Forest on Tuesday night.
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