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Assessing the Threat: Wake Forest at Clemson

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 06 Clemson at Wake Forest Photo by Brian Utesch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For those who were Tiger fans back in the Pre-Dabo Swinney era, many remember how Wake Forest was always a trap game that Tommy Bowden always seemed to trip up against. In fact, it was a 12-7 loss against the Demon Deacons that ultimately led to the end of the Bowden era and prompted the rise of the current coaching era we find ourselves in now. In some ways, it might be one of the biggest “what-ifs” in Clemson football history. But that’s a subject for another day.

Now, since Swinney took over as head coach, Clemson has won 10 straight meetings against Wake Forest. While no team is necessarily a non-factor, the Demon Deacons are not one of the teams most would consider a team with the kind of upset potential that NC State had. Having signed Dave Clawson to an eight-year extension through 2026, Wake Forest is committing to him for the long-term.

Offense: 2018 was a bit of a roller coaster for the Demon Deacons as they had not one, not two, but three quarterbacks. The athletic Kendall Hinton was slated to start the season, but an early-season suspension and subsequent move to receiver opened the door for freshman Sam Hartman. Hartman exceeded 200 passing yards in every game he played except blowout losses to Notre Dame and Clemson. When he got hurt, the Deacons turned to Jamie Newman.

Out of the two, Hartman appeared to have the best upside, though it’s apparent that being thrown into the starting role as a freshman wasn’t without its growing pains. The Demon Deacons will be bringing back a 1,000 yard rusher in Cade Carney, their receiving corps loses its biggest playmaker in Greg Dortch.

Despite the rotating door at QB, Wake’s up-tempo offense ranked 48th in S&P+, making it the strength of the team over the defense which ranked 64th. So long as they can replace WR Greg Dortch adequately, that should be the case again in 2019.

Defense: Wake Forest’s defense didn’t exactly thrive after firing former defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel four games into the season, though it got better.. Following the end of the season, safeties coach Lyle Hemphill was promoted to defensive coordinator after taking over for Sawvel midseason. The Demon Deacons return defensive end Carlos Basham Jr. (11 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks), linebacker Justin Strnad, and both of its cornerbacks in Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson. The Demon Deacons will have to find a means to generate a consistent pass rush. After giving up chunks of points (and yards) to Clemson (63), a struggling Florida State (38), a Louisville team that only mustered two wins (35), and Syracuse (41), their defense will again be tested. Perhaps continuity will help, but for the time being, its defense remains a question.

Closing: Wake Forest enters 2019 needing to settle on a quarterback (here’s Ryan’s more optimistic take on WF’s QBs) and shore up a defense that gave up too many points to its ACC foes. How much success Wake Forest has in the grand scheme of the Atlantic will depend upon its quarterback play and whether Hartman or Newman firmly grasps the reins as the starter. Regardless of who starts, Wake Forest is likely destined for yet another six-to-seven win season and a bowl destination while falling short of its primary competition in the Atlantic Division.