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Game Preview: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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Believe it or not, there's another game before October 3rd, and the Hoosiers will have their work cut out for them.

Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Game Info / How to Watch

Who? Wake Forest Demon Deacons (2-1, #92 F/+) v. Indiana Hoosiers (3-0, #86 F/+)

When? Saturday, 9/26, 12:30 PM, Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Channel? ACC Network / ESPN3 / WNDY

Vegas? INDIANA -3.5

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Depending on your involvement in our grassroots effort to bring ESPN's College GameDay to Bloomington on October 3rd, you may have forgotten that the Indiana Hoosiers must first play Wake Forest on September 26th.

So let's talk about that.

The Hoosiers stand at 3-0, it may be one of the shakiest 3-0 starts in the nation, but it's still a 3-0 start. The stats don't love Indiana's overall profile because, much like in previous years, a top-class offensive unit cannot make up the ground of a bottom-barrel defense enough for the formulas to believe, but more on that later. It stands to reason that squeaking out three wins over two bad opponents and one decent one (all at home) isn't an impressive résumé. But Indiana is not (currently) worried about impressing anyone, they're here to collect at least six wins each and every way they can. For Indiana, football is a pass / fail proposition and those wins will not be taken away from them (barring retroactive NCAA action years from now).

Every game is a benchmark. Last week, I asked if Indiana could defeat a program that had come to Division 1 nearly a decade ago and surpassed Indiana in accomplishment. This week: can they take this show on the road?

So how does one wake a forest? Let us attempt to answer. (NOTE: S&P ratings and explanations can be found here.)

THE OPPONENT (#86 S&P, #83 Offense, #76 Defense)

Wake Forest's numbers fall close to Indiana in the overall spectrum, but they get there in a different way. While Indiana's ranking is the combination of a big time offense and a struggling defense, Wake Forest falls in line with their overall ranking on both sides of the ball, neither excelling nor completely inept at either, but somewhat below average in both. For comparison, former IU opponents Florida International (111th, offensive S&P) scored 22 and Western Kentucky (23rd) scored 35. SIU doesn't get a ranking, given their FCS status, but we can assume they'd fall closer to (if not past) FIU than WKU, and their 47 points were scored on a defense missing important guys at every single level.

Making things more difficult for Wake from an execution standpoint, and Indiana for a preparation standpoint, is the currently question marks surrounding the health of their starting quarterback, which we detailed here. Starter John Wolford is looking less and less likely to go, which means the pocket passer will hand the reins over to dual threat Kendall Hinton, who carried the ball 17 times for over 100 yards and both Wake Forest touchdowns when he came in against Army. He was less efficient through the air, going 15-27 for 159 yards, with almost a third of those yards coming on one play: a 51 yard strike that he completed after breaking the pocket and firing an absolute dime deep down the field.

That last sentence should terrify Indiana fans, as the secondary has trouble holding up just generally, and if Hinton can break contain and find open guys with any consistency, it will turn into a very long day for this Hoosiers unit. That said, Hinton hasn't shown a lot of consistency in a small sample size (true freshman signal-callers rarely do) and if this defense can build on their second half performance against WKU, they have a chance to make life miserable for the Wake offense.

Hinton also represents Wake's biggest run threat early in the year, averaging close to 6 yards per cary while the stable of underclassman running backs are averaging less than 4 yards per carry.

Wide receiver KJ Brent looks the part of an NFL receiver at 6-4 and will likely be a difficult task for any Indiana defensive back to handle alone. Granted, getting open is only half the battle, but a tall target with space is a true freshman quarterback's best friend, and I would expect Indiana to try and make Hinton make a second read.

On defense, it's hard to get a great read on Wake Forest, as they've yet to see an offense remotely close to what Indiana will bring in. Syracuse (82nd) and Army (99th) can't boast Indiana's offensive prowess but one managed to score 30 while the other struggled to 14. As is almost always the case, I would expect Indiana to move the ball with relative ease, but the question will be if they can score enough to offset the defensive lapses.

Coach Dave Clawson is in his second year with the Demon Deacons, taking the job after leaving Bowling Green. With Clawson at the helm, the Hoosiers obliterated the Falcons in Memorial Stadium 42-10 back in 2013. While it would be great if that's a sign of things to come, Wake Forest is very different from that Bowling Green squad, and Indiana has changed out many of the players who starred in that game.

THE HOOSIERS (#84 S&P, #22 Offense, #118 Defense)

So there's the Hoosiers' S&P numbers in all their glory. The overall ranking is lower than I expected, the offensive number is in line with my expectation, and the defensive number is as ugly as ever and represents a 27-spot drop from last year's finish. With all the departures, particularly in the secondary, and some top returning guys missing a couple games due to suspension, a drop was expected. Ideally, the new parts start to gel as the season progresses and gets better from here, but IU fans aren't easily convinced of such happenings on the defensive side of the ball until they actually see it.

There's nothing much to report offensively, as Indiana boasts a unit that can score on you in a bunch of different ways. They can attack deep down the field with the speedy receivers, or carve up the short-middle of the field with the tight ends and screens. I want to be on record as LOVING the Hoosiers rediscovery of the tight end. The unit has combined for 10 catches on the year, with many coming out of the flat off play-action and even some deep targets as defenses focus on more heralded targets.

On the ground, Jordan Howard has shown to be a perfectly acceptable replacement for Tevin Coleman, doing it with his enormous power rather than breakaway speed. Devine Redding is the running game's changeup, trying to beat the defense to the edge with his speed and quickness. He has yet to bust out a big run this year, but you can feel it coming.

So the big question that looms: can Indiana find a way to win on the road? Last year was a bit of a mixed bag, as IU collected the program's biggest win in recent history when they walked into Columbia, Missouri, but also suffered a road defeat to Bowling Green that same year. A 4-0 start, and an undefeated non-conference record are two things Kevin Wilson has yet to achieve as a coach at Indiana, and beating Wake Forest could deliver both, and who knows what else?

THE GAME

Indiana will likely need to play their best game to date if they want to topple the Demon Deacons on the road. The efforts that took things down to the wire against SIU and FIU won't cut it. If they can replicate their second half against WKU, a 21-7 effort that helped erase an 11-point halftime deficit, for an entire game, they shouldn't have any problems walking out of Winston-Salem with a victory. Indiana has to kick the habit of starting slow as the competition stiffens, because coming back from double-digit deficits on the road isn't a sustainable model.

I'm also going to rant here for a second: if Indiana loses to Wake Forest, there's gonna be a lot of "oh well they got caught looking ahead to OSU, etc." and I'm here to say that probably isn't true. If Indiana gets beat by Wake Forest, it's likely because Wake is a statistically similar team playing at home. For all the good we feel about Indiana's undefeated start, it's an undefeated start with a lot of warts and a lot of weaknesses that could get exposed. Indiana has a long way to go to become a good football team, and they've got the pieces in place to get there, but it'll come down to execution.

I've picked Indiana to win three straight times, and I'll do it again: I like them 38-29 over the Demon Deacons, who just don't have enough firepower to really make the Hoosiers pay defensively, and not defensively stout enough to slow down the Hoosier's various means of attack.