3:44 PM EDT, October 12, 2011
This is a sports year for the small. Butler and VCU made the Final Four, the Green Bay Packers rule the NFL, and bigfoots New York, Philadelphia and Boston have vanished from baseball's title chase.
The trend even includes cinema, where Brad Pitt's "Moneyball" celebrates cunning instead of cash.
And now this college football season comes Wake Forest, the embodiment of small.
The Deacons have the ACC's smallest enrollment, stadium and athletics budget. Yet entering Saturday's home game against Virginia Tech they sit atop the Atlantic Division standings, 3-0 in league play for the first time ever.
"It seems unbelievable that we haven't done that in 59 years, or however long we've been in the Atlantic Coast Conference," said Jim Grobe, Wake Forest's sorcerer of a head coach, "but it's a good feeling."
Indeed, the Deacons (4-1 overall) are charter ACC members, and this marks the league's 59th year. Care to guess how many winning conference seasons Wake Forest has managed in that span?
Try eight, with two championships. The first was 1970, the second in 2006, when Grobe guided the Deacons to an 11-3 record and No. 18 finish in the Associated Press poll, their highest year-end ranking.
Wake Forest has upgraded facilities and taken advantage of unexpected declines at Florida State and Miami. But the Deacons' emergence is, in large measure, a reflection of Grobe, 59 and a 1975 Virginia graduate.
He arrived in 2001 after reviving Ohio's dormant program. He runs a diverse, deceptive offense and scours the country — Florida and Texas are two primary recruiting areas — for prospects.
A linchpin of Grobe's formula: Whenever possible he redshirts incoming recruits, many of them undersized and undervalued, trusting they'll develop into ACC-caliber talents by their third or fourth season.
Check out the Deacons' depth chart. Only two starters have been in the program less than three years: sophomore quarterback Tanner Price and redshirt freshman cornerback Merrill Noel.
Led by fifth-year seniors Doug Weaver and Michael Hoag, the offensive line is the largest in program history. The five starters average 6-foot-5, 314 pounds.
"It is a good group to lead your football team," Grobe said. "When you've got old guys in the offensive line, I think it really helps you when you're trying to get the ball to your skill players."
Price is doing that expertly. He's thrown 162 consecutive passes without an interception.
"Wake Forest? Wow," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "You look at them, and they're just a much, much-improved football team. They had all those young guys playing last year and now they know what they're doing, and they're doing it at a fast pace."
Given the school's modest resources, and despite Grobe's sage management, the Deacons aren't likely to become annual contenders. The 2006 championship year was their first winning ACC season since 1988, and their historic start this year comes on the heels of a 3-9 season in which they endured five defeats of 30-plus points, including a 52-21 loss at Virginia Tech.
"Last year we got our nose bloodied by about everybody," Grobe said, "and in some cases we couldn't even keep the game in reach. It just got out of hand early."
As in 2006, media picked the Deacons to finish last in the Atlantic Division this year, and why not? In 2010, Wake Forest ranked below 90th nationally in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense and total defense.
This season, the Deacons rank among the top 50 in those categories. They're scoring 11.8 more points per game and allowing 12.4 fewer, a seismic shift of 24.2 points.
If not for a Price leg injury and subsequent fourth-quarter collapse in the opener at Syracuse, Wake Forest would be 5-0 overall. Since that overtime defeat, the Deacons have bested North Carolina State, Gardner-Webb, Boston College and preseason ACC favorite Florida State.
Saturday's 35-30 upset of FSU was Wake's fourth victory in that series in the last six years. Don't know about you, but I wouldn't have figured the Deacons to beat the Seminoles four times in 60 years, let alone six. There may be no greater endorsement of Grobe.
"The No. 1 thing is, we're just a little more experienced," he said. "You have to give the kids credit. I think they got embarrassed last year."
Including at Virginia Tech, where the Hokies scored 49 first-half points. Don't expect the same Saturday.
"They're a really good football team," Beamer said. "It's not a fluke at all."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP