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Game 1 Preview: Clemson Travels to Wake Forest

The Clouds Have Parted and FOOTBALL IS HERE!

NCAA Football: Clemson at Louisville Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

I think it is only right that I begin this season’s first game preview article with:

Yes, friends, the time has finally arrived after so much anticipating, and even dreading, the fate of the college football season. The world is still not back to “normal” and may never truly be again, but seeing this game arrive has brought me a feeling not unlike what Columbus must have felt when he caught sight of land in the 1400s.

Clemson will indeed get to play another season in the golden years of the Dabo Swinney regime, ranked #1 and poised to claim a sixth consecutive ACC championship, sixth straight CFP appearance, and third national title in five years. Wake Forest gets to take the grenade to open it up this year instead of Georgia Tech...

Clemson Offense vs. Wake Forest Defense: The solo Tony Elliot show (for the most part) takes the stage for the first time. We know Elliot has been the play caller since Chad Morris departed, but how much the offensive plan and system was flavored by Jeff Scott is hard to really know.

Elliot now has a chance to make a bigger name for himself as captain of a pretty loaded warship. Trevor Lawrence enters what should be his final year of college football as the best quarterback in America. Behind him is the two time ACC player of the year and best running back in America, Travis Etienne.

We probably haven’t seen a combination like this heading into a season since Matt Leinhart returned to USC after winning the Heisman and had Reggie Bush, the eventual Heisman winner, behind him. Other than health, the only questions left are how the now retooled WR corps responds to not having Justyn Ross as the no doubt 9 man on the outside. If Lawrence has truly taken another step in his development, matching his awe-inspiring physical gifts with elite game management and decision making, there is no real reason to think any team can really slow this offense down.

Wake, of course, will give it the old college try. They do have one of the best defensive linemen in the land in Carlos Basham Jr., and if you are going to really cause a top offense trouble you have to do it up front.

The new version of the Clemson OL will have a bit of a test here, but if they hold up, the rest of the Deacon defense will be struggling to keep up with the array of talented skill players the Tigers deploy. Wake’s defense was horrendous two years ago when the Tigers ran up and down the field at will. Last year wasn’t much better, but definitely improved for the Deacs on that side of the ball.

The end of the Grobe era saw the Deacons being pretty good on defense but terrible on offense. That script has flipped during the Clawson era, but the Deacs have found their way to a bowl each of the last four seasons. One of the biggest wild cards during this season is the “available players” list that won’t be seen until the night before or day of the game depending on kick times. It already sounds like Wake will be affected by this and they certainly can’t afford to not have all hands on deck. After giving up 50+ the last two games against the Tigers, I think Wake will be thrilled if they can keep Clemson in the 30s.

They will give us the first glimpse of what defenses might try to do to combat Clemson’s offense. You have to think that they will take their chances on the outside with Clemson’s largely unproven WR corps in order to load up against Etienne and Lawrence in the run game.

I’ll be looking to see how well Clemson can get back to attacking the middle of the field in the passing game after taking a step back in that department last season. Braden Galloway’s role should begin to reveal itself and could provide a dynamic the Tigers haven’t had since Jordan Leggett’s departure. Wake should have 9 guys returning with starting experience on defense, so they will probably be able to execute their calls well and make the Tigers just be better man on man.

Clemson Defense vs. Wake Forest Offense: The ACC does return a large number of veteran and battle-tested quarterbacks this season. The last time the ACC had a really strong year overall in football was 2016, thanks to a strong cast of QBs in the league. Sam Hartman is now the undisputed starter for Wake after going back and forth with Jamie Newman. While Hartman lacks some of Newman’s overall physical gifts, he is not a guy likely to be rattled or intimidated seeing the orange helmets on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Can he be an Eric Dungey and really give the Tigers some fits? Wake certainly hopes so.

One thing is for sure — Wake HAS to get some kind of running game going for its offense to have any real chance at making this interesting. That slow mesh zone read can drive you crazy. When Wake has been good on offense these last few years, you can usually point to their running game as the catalyst.

Wake’s big scoring games last season all featured strong games on the ground. The Tigers totally stuffed the Deacons on the ground and everywhere else in last year’s blowout win. Brent Venables almost always looks to eat up a run game before anything else and now has a retooled DL to help him do it.

Last year’s impact freshman, Tyler Davis, is now a veteran starter, with savvy veterans Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams beside him. There is also a man-beast in the making named Bryan Bresee waiting to make his presence felt. A “bigger, stronger, more violent Christian Wilkins”? Heaven help us all.

The Tigers will be without leader James Skalski for the first half as he serves his time for the targeting call in the third quarter of the LSU game. Jake Venables looks to get his shot to make his mark with Wake trying to run it right at him with their inside zone runs.

Wake really only wants to throw on their terms, using play action. Without the run game working last year, Jamie Newman was made to look like a bad JV player, going just 6/14 for 41 yards and 2 picks. Hartman might be a veteran, but he will have a miserable night if he’s forced to throw when Clemson wants him to.

It will be exciting to see all the players after this layoff, but I always look forward to seeing what Venables has up his sleeve and what players will emerge when their time to shine comes. Who will be the Spencer Shuey, the Kevin Dodd, the Ryan Carter, or the Chad Smith of this year’s defense? My vote is for Baylon Spector. The battle for the corner job opposite Derion Kendrick will be one to watch all year long. Coach Clawson has talked up his WR skill despite losing Sage Surratt somewhat unexpectedly, and you have to think they will try to expose some of the relative lack of experience in the back seven for the Tigers.

Special Teams: Clemson had some shaky times in the kicking game last season. The good news is we know B.T. Potter has one of the biggest legs in college football. The only thing left for him is to be consistently accurate. The Will Spiers era is going on what feels like its seventh year at punter. Spiers had some better moments last year, perhaps his biggest being narrowly avoiding a blocked punt while drawing a roughing call against Ohio State that helped the Tigers turn the game around. Luckily the Tigers have rarely really needed big moments from Spiers, and you just hope the senior might deliver when and if that time arrives this year like he did against the Buckeyes.

Clemson’s return game should get a boost in punt returns with a healthy Amari Rodgers. This is a spot where we could see Demarcus Bowman make an impact as well. Clemson hasn’t had a big time kickoff return in a long time despite having some terrific athletes to use at returner. Punt and kick coverage has usually been a moot point with Spiers normally kicking high (albeit usually shorter) punts and Potter blasting balls out of the endzone. As usual, the Ray Guy watch will be on for the opposing punter.

OVERALL: Clemson should dominate this game, and I’m as ready for a boring blowout as I’ve ever been. Heck, even if we get a game like last year’s UNC scare, I’ll be just happy to have a chance to watch the Tigers play. I never contemplated not having a season in my life until this COVID madness began, but it certainly has infused a renewed appreciation for my favorite sports time of the year. Let the Lawrence/Etienne wrecking ball roll!

Clemson 50-Wake 16

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports