UFORD, Ga. -- The true beauty of what happened three college football seasons ago, when moribund Northwestern emerged from the perennially ridiculed pack to become Rose Bowl participants, is that not a soul from Augusta to Albany could have speculated on such a scene-shaking occurrence during a conference preseason kickoff.
Since 1995, pundits like myself have busily scoured the college football hotsheets, looking for that next "Who Woulda Thunk It?" team to crash the usual subjects' post-season parties.
Well, after two days of listening to the Atlantic Coast Conference coaches and players tell the herd of media packs how good their teams will be this season, I think I've found such a candidate.
It is the league's smallest school, its campus situated on tobacco property a few miles from its industrial downtown, a downtown where its tallest building looks like a giant deodorant roll-on.
Wake Forest's predominant landmark is Wait Chapel, and if you're a Demon Deacons follower, football is nothing more than a wait-till-basketball-tips-off type season.
Well, wait no longer.
What qualifies Wake Forest to think it can be the ACC's Northwestern this season? For starters, the Deacons have won 14 games in five years and have one winning season this decade, so past misery is on its side.
More importantly than their wretched history, they've got an ACC-high 18 returning starters, including the essential skill players at quarterback, running back and wide receivers. This group of players has been spit on, ignored, laughed at and kicked around the last four years.
"I'm tired of being the one crying when we leave the field," quarterback Brian Kuklick said Tuesday. "We're a good enough team to make others cry."
Kuklick's worst memory of a semi-respectable 5-6 season a year ago was losing at East Carolina by one when leading by 21 after 15 minutes. Then there was the two-point home loss to Georgia Tech, and the blown fourth-quarter lead at Virginia.
"I like to say we were 11 points from being 8-3," Kuklick said. "But that gets you nowhere fast if you still dwell on it. Hopefully, it'll make us a much tougher team in fourth quarters this year."
The Deacs shouldn't have many fourth-quarter struggles early, a new thought isn't it? They open at declining Air Force, play host to a lousy Navy team five days later, then after a week off, travel to Death Valley for a date with rebuilding Clemson. Throw in games with Appalachian State, Duke and Maryland, and a 6-0 start is quite possible.
"We can come out of the blocks fast," Kuklick said about his school, which last went to a bowl game in 1992.
"I've been watching film on Air Force for two weeks now, and I think we can go out there and beat them. Then we've got some games following that where we will be favorites, and that's got to be a first for any team at Wake."
Still, it's never easy being a football player at a school that throws toilet paper over its trees when the basketball team beats Lehigh in mid-December. Unfortunately, the Winston-Salem buzz doesn't mention the Deacs defense, which set an ACC record for best single-season improvement in rushing defense -- a whopping 158 yards a game).
"My first couple of years, no one on campus thought we would win a game ever again," Kuklick said. "Last year, when we had five wins going into the Clemson game, they organized a pep rally for us. Teachers would say hi to us when we'd go to class. It just felt like finally, the school got behind us instead of kicking us."
Look out for little 'ole Wake Forest this year. They could be the ones doing most of the kicking.