Wake Forest (0-0) at ULM (0-0) (ET)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Malone Stadium (30,427) -- Monroe, Louisiana. Television: ESPN U. Home Record: Wake Forest 0-0, ULM 0-0. Away Record: Wake Forest 0-0, ULM 0-0. Neutral Record: Wake Forest 0-0, ULM 0-0. Conference Record: Wake Forest 0-0, ULM 0-0. Series Record: ULM leads, 1-0.
GAME NOTES: The ACC and the Sun Belt will clash on opening night at Malone Stadium, as the ULM Warhawks play host to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on Thursday night.
Wake Forest's struggles in the ACC continued during the 2013 campaign, as it finished just 4-8 overall, including 2-6 in league play. After treading water early in the season with wins in four of its first seven games, it fell flat down the stretch with five consecutive losses.
After the team's fifth consecutive losing season, head coach Jim Grobe resigned after 13 seasons at the helm. The Demon Deacons will usher in a new era with former Bowling Green head coach Dave Clawson, who had led the Falcons to back-to-back bowl bids in 2012 and 2013.
ULM came into last season as one of the favorites in the Sun Belt Conference, but it ultimately underperformed by finishing 6-6. It emerged from its non- conference schedule just 2-3, and the slow start carried over into the beginning of its league schedule, losing to Western Kentucky on Oct. 3 (31-10).
They rebounded with three straight win but the Warhawks' hopes for a league title were dashed in November, when they lost back-to-back contests to Arkansas State (42-14) and South Alabama (36-14). They pulled off a road upset over Louisiana on Nov. 30 (31-28) to finish 4-3 in the league and earn bowl eligibility for the second straight season, but they failed to secure a postseason invite.
The teams squared off for the first time last season, with ULM winning at Wake Forest on Sept. 14, 21-19.
Wake Forest's offensive performance last year was easily forgettable, as it put up only 18.3 ppg on less than 300 yards per contest. Only five starters return on that side of the ball, and the fresh blood could give the unit the shot in the arm it needs in 2014.
After an open quarterback competition in camp, true freshman John Wolford emerged as the team's starter after he outperformed upperclassmen Tyler Cameron and Kevin Sousa. Wolford, a Jacksonville, Fla. native, broke Tim Tebow's state records in career passing yards and all-purpose touchdowns in high school.
Wolford will have an equally inexperienced crop of receivers to throw too. With the departure of Michael Campanaro (67 receptions, 870 yards, six TDs), sophomores Jared Crump and Tyree Harris will act as the top targets.
The Deacons' rushing attack was anemic last season, putting up only 1,130 yards on 2.9 yards per attempt. Orville Reynolds and Dominique Gibson are expected to garner most of the carries.
Wake Forest's inability to generate any consistent offense a year ago spoiled all the positive work put in on the defensive side of the ball, as the unit impressed by allowing only 24.1 ppg and 366.2 ypg while forcing 21 turnovers.
The defense welcomes back the top two tacklers from 2013 in linebacker Brandon Chubbs (88 tackles, 3.0 TFL, INT) and safety Ryan Janivon (95 tackles, INT). Janivon was an All-ACC honorable mention selection last season as a freshman.
Chubbs and Janivon are two of just five returning defensive starters. The Deacons are especially depleted on the defensive line after losing Nikita Whitlock (82 tackles, 19.0 TFL, 9.0 sacks)
After an outstanding 2012 campaign (33.8 ppg), ULM's offense took a major step backward last season by putting up a mere 22.2 ppg and 360.3 ypg.
With the departure of quarterback Kolton Browning (2,179 yards, 21 TDs, eight INTs), the keys to the offense have been handed over to Pete Thomas, a two- time transfer who previously played for NC State and Colorado State. Thomas was up-and-down in part-time work for the Wolfpack last season, completing 149-of-247 passes (.603) for 1,667 yards with four touchdowns and nine picks.
Thomas hopes to strike up some chemistry with Rashon Ceaser, who was one of the conference's best wide receivers a season ago with 65 receptions for 964 yards and five touchdowns. Kenzee Jackson (24 receptions, 271 yards, two TDs) also returns to the receiving corps.
After working as part of a backfield-by-committee in 2013, Centarius Donald (433 yards, four TDs) will get a chance to serve as the feature tailback as a senior, running behind an offensive line that welcomes back three starters.
ULM's defensive numbers last season were sub par (30.2 ppg, 426.8 ypg), which was a result of streaky play, as the unit allowed 30 points or more seven times yet held opponents under 20 points four times.
The unit anticipates growth in 2014 with eight starters back in the fold, led by its versatile middle linebacker Hunter Kissinger, who racked up 73 tackles, 6.5 TFL, three interceptions and a forced fumble last season. Ray Stovall (49 tackles, 11.0 TFL), Gerrand Johnson (56 tackles, 11.0 TFL), and Cordero Smith (63 tackles, INT, FF) are also integral pieces.
Wake Forest's impressive defense will give it a great shot at a road victory, but with a freshman quarterback under center in hostile territory for his debut, figure for ULM to get its season off on the right foot with an impressive non-conference victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: ULM 24, Wake Forest 21Game Date and Time
Thursday, August 28, 7:02 p.m. (ET)