7:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Clemson -34, Over/Under: 60.5
Though the Regular Season formally began last weekend, the Atlantic Coast Conference kicks things off tonight as the top-ranked Clemson Tigers set out to earn yet another league title on the road against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, from Truist Field in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Even with the Covid-19 Pandemic causing massive upheaval across the college football landscape, the No. One team in the Polls remains the same, and that’s Clemson (14-1, 9-0 in ACC in 2019), and unlike their contemporaries in the Big Ten and Pac-12, they will in fact be competing on the gridiron this Fall. In surveying the field, it’s not difficult to see why they’ve earned such a distinction, for after all the Tigers have secured five consecutive ACC Championships, and have thus appeared in four of the last five National Championship Games, in which they’ve gone 2-2 with trophies in both 2016 and 2018. Now in his twelfth season on campus, Dabo Swinney has developed this program into a bonafide powerhouse, having gone a ridiculous 69-5 (.932) over the past five years, besting the competition on the field and on the recruiting trail, where he’s kept the cupboard stocked with a plethora of talent. Thirty-Seven players have been drafted since 2015, with ten going in the First Round, including a pair of defenders, Linebacker, Isaiah Simmons (104 TKL, 16.5 TFL, 8.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 3 INT, 8 PD in 2019), alongside Cornerback, A.J. Terrell (34 TKL, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 SK, 2 INT, 3 PD in 2019), who heard their names called on the first day of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Heading into this season, it’s clear that the machine will keep on rolling, and that’s mostly due to a pair of Heisman candidates, namely Quarterback, Trevor Lawrence (65.8%, 3,665 YDS, 9.0 Y/A, 36 TD, 8 INT, 166.7 RATE in 2019), and Tailback, Travis Etienne (207 CAR, 1,614 YDS, 7.8 Y/R, 19 TD in 2019). Now a Junior, there isn’t much that hasn’t already been said in regards to Lawrence, who in just two years at the helm has seen it all and done it all; the towering Signal-Caller has lost just once in an orange uniform, completing 65.5% of his Passes for 6,945 Yards, Sixty-Six Touchdowns and Twelve Interceptions, while rushing for another 740 Yards and Ten Scores in thirty games thus far. At 6-6, 220 lbs he has the size, arm strength, and mobility that has NFL Scouts frothing at the mouth, with the general consensus being that he will be the undisputed No. One Overall Pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, should he choose to declare. Furthermore, his maturity has been something to behold; while nobody would have faulted him for choosing to opt out of this season due to the uncertainty caused by Covid-19, he was instead one of the most vocal players in the country in petitioning the schools to fight for a 2020 season, no matter the consequences. A leader on and off the field, it’s clear that Swinney doesn’t need to worry about his Quarterback, or the Offense much in general. Of course, having an All-American Tailback doesn’t hurt either, and the aforementioned Etienne’s decision to forgo the Draft and return to school was a bit of a surprise, though one that the faithful in Clemson, South Carolina are happy to receive. The Senior has been one of the most explosive players in the country over the past three years, averaging a staggering 7.8 Yards per Carry over his career, in which he has rushed for 4,038 Yards and Fifty-Six Touchdowns. However, it wasn’t until 2019 that he developed into an equally dangerous weapon in the passing game, hauling in Thirty-Seven Receptions for 432 Yards and Four Touchdowns. Look for this aspect of his game to continue to grow, for there is an excellent chance that Lawrence will be looking for him early and often after the departures they’ve sustained in the Receiving Corps; Tee Higgins (59 REC, 1,167 YDS, 19.8 Y/R, 13 TD in 2019) took his talents to the NFL where he was selected No. 33 in May’s Draft, while Justyn Ross (66 REC, 865 YDS, 13.1 Y/R, 8 TD in 2019) will unfortunately miss the entire campaign in order to undergo surgery congenital fusion in his neck. That’s 125 Receptions, 2,032 Yards, and Twenty-One Touchdowns that need to be replaced, folks, not to mention two huge targets standing 6-4 apiece.
When we last saw Clemson, their 29-Game Winning Streak came to an abrupt halt in the CFP National Championship Game against LSU, who humbled them in a 42-25 rout. In this battle of Tigers, Swinney’s side stood strong in the early stages of the affair, forcing their opponent’s prolific attack to go three-and-out on their first three possessions of the contest, and held the lead for the majority of the First Half, leading 17-14 until the 5:19 mark in the second period, which is where the Bayou Bengals WENT OFF. From that point on the reigning National Champions were outscored 28-8, and in the end conceded a whopping 631 Total Yards of Offense, with 2019 Heisman, Joe Burrow, carving them up for 463 Yards and Six Touchdowns. Lawrence struggled as the game progressed, completing just 18-of-37 Attempts for 234 Yards, though rushed for Forty-Nine Yards and a Touchdown, while Etienne was largely contained as well despite accounting for 114 Total Yards and a Touchdown on Twenty Touches. Odds are that a meeting with Wake Forest will ease some of those negative feelings following such a defeat, for the Tigers have turned their Atlantic Division neighbors into their own proverbial whipping boy since Swinney took over midway through the 2008 campaign; Clemson has won eleven consecutive fixtures in this series, with the last eight being decided by no fewer than fourteen points. In fact, the last time that they lost to the Demon Deacons was consequently the very same game that led to Swinney’s promotion, a 7-12 affair that ended the tenure of Tommy Bowden. The rest as they say, is history…
Meanwhile, looking to build upon a promising 2019 campaign, Wake Forest (8-5, 4-4 in ACC in 2019) heads into the wilderness of 2020 with many uncertainties. Dave Clawson did a stellar job last season in matching his high in wins since arriving in Winston Salem back in 2014, which is consequently the most that this program has managed to earn since 2006, when they went 11-3 en route to making an appearance in the Orange Bowl. Coming over from Bowling Green, the Head Coach had his work cut out for him, and it was indeed a difficult trek to return the school back to respectability. In his first two seasons with the Demon Deacons, his charges managed back-to-back 3-9 campaigns, but have since begun to rise above the waters of mediocrity, going 30-22 (.577) over the following four years, which have in turn resulted in four consecutive bowl births, though last year’s 27-21 loss to Michigan State in the Pinstripe Bowl marked their first postseason defeat under his watch. So the question is this: getting from Point A to Point B is one thing, but how the hell do they ascend to Point C? After all, this is NOT a program with a history of much success; dating back to their time as an Independent in 1908, Wake Forest has only ever managed to win more than eight games ONCE, sporting an all-time Win Percentage of .397.
While it’s perhaps a bit too much to proclaim that this program would have challenged Clemson within the ACC’s Atlantic Division, it’s certainly realistic to think that Wake Forest could have continued to build upon their eight-win campaign under normal circumstances. However, thanks to Covid-19, there are no normal circumstances, and as a result Clawson has seen his two most prominent playmakers leave the program altogether. First it began with Quarterback, Jamie Newman (60.9%, 2,868 YDS, 7.9 Y/A, 26 TD, 11 INT, 145.3 RATE in 2019), who in his first full season as the Starter played very well; the Junior completed 60.9% of his Passes for 2,868 Yards, and Twenty-Six Touchdowns in comparison to Eleven Interceptions, while also making plays with his feet, rushing for 574 Yards and Six Touchdowns. Unfortunately, rather than return to Winston Salem for his final year of eligibility, he chose to take his talents to Georgia where he would play right away thanks to his status as a Graduate Transfer. Consequently, his tenure in Athens would be very short-lived, for he was one just one of many players to withdraw from the 2020 campaign altogether in fear of the pandemic, choosing instead to safely prepare for the NFL Draft. The bigger loss though, is that of Wide Receiver, Sage Surratt (66 REC, 1,001 YDS, 15.2 Y/R, 11 TD in 2019), who also decided to opt out of 2020, and in turn prepare for the NFL Draft. The would-be Junior was one of the biggest surprises last season, hauling Sixty-Six Receptions for 1,001 Yards and Eleven Touchdowns in just nine games of action. At 6-3, 215 lbs, Surratt was a favorite of Newman’s, particularly in the Red Zone, where his size, hands, and leaping ability made him a matchup nightmare for opposing Defensive Backs. And if that wasn’t enough, The Deacons also lost former Quarterback-turned-Receiver, Kendall Hinton (73 REC, 1,001 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 4 TD in 2019) to graduation; in his lone year at Wideout, the fifth-year Senior reeled in Seventy-Three Catches for 1,001 Yards and Four Touchdowns. Needless to say, that’s a lot of production to replace on Offense, which doesn’t bode well for a team looking to make the next step from competitive to quality.
Taking over for Newman will be Sam Hartman (56.7%, 830 YDS, 8.6 Y/A, 4 TD, 2 INT, 138.1 RATE in 2019), who consequently lost his job to his former teammate following the 2018 campaign. As a Freshman, Hartman made nine starts, completing just 55.3% of his Passes for 1,984 Yards, Sixteen Touchdowns and Eight Interceptions, while rushing for another 275 Yards and a pair of scores. Most of 2019 was spent in relief, featuring in four games in which he tossed Four Touchdowns and Two Interceptions. At 6-1, 215 lbs, Hartman is far from the physical presence that Newman was, and his decision-making hasn’t been the best in his limited sample size. There would have been optimism if the aforementioned Surratt was available to provide a security blanket for the Signal-Caller, but it now appears that Clawson will have to further develop the rest of the Offense and look to other figures to aid his young Quarterback. In this case, the Defense must continue to improve upon their solid showing in 2019. Wake Forest held their own in this regard, allowing a middling 29.1 Points per Game (76th Overall) on 416.5 Total Yards, but feasted on big plays, forcing Twenty-Six Turnovers, including Twelve Fumbles and Fourteen Interceptions. Defensive Lineman, Carlos Basham Jr. (57 TKL, 18.0 TFL, 10.0 SK, 3 FF, 3 PD in 201) was a terror in the trenches for the Deacons, racking up Eighteen Tackles for Loss and Ten Sacks as a Junior.