With their exciting win over NC State last weekend, the Demon Deacons come to Clemson looking to clinch the ACC Atlantic. Meanwhile, the Tigers will look to keep their divisional hopes, 10-win season streak, and home-win streak alive. To help us preview the big matchup with Wake Forest, we re-connected with friend of the blog, Robert Reinhard.
Ryan: The Deacons’ wild win over NC State last weekend puts them in the driver seat for the ACC Atlantic. Now they just need to beat Clemson OR Boston College to secure their second ever ACC Atlantic title. Where does last week’s win stack up for you in terms of all-time favorite games since you’ve been a fan? Is it sweeter because it came against NC State, who has only one win in Winston-Salem since 2001, and will likely be prevented from winning their first ever ACC division title?
Robert: I’ve been a Wake Forest fan since the fall of 2008 (freshman year), so I will begin by acknowledging that I became a fan post-ACC Championship victory over Georgia Tech. That being said, this was the biggest win Wake Forest has had over that time period. It was a night home game against our rival in front of a sold out crowd, including 60 recruits, and in winning the team now sits in the driver’s seat for the ACC Atlantic. The atmosphere was absolutely awesome. Fans were loud on third down, and I absolutely loved how Wake fans of all ages gathered on the field for 20+ minutes after the win. The fans knew what that win meant for the season and for our program.
I know Wake doesn’t have the greatest football history, but it’s not like this program hasn’t had a number of wins to be proud of since I’ve been a fan. After all, this will now mark the sixth consecutive year that Wake Forest is going to a bowl game. During the time I’ve been a fan we’ve had a number of wins against top 25 teams and named programs (Ole Miss, Clemson (once before Dabo lol), Florida State several times, Stanford, North Carolina, Texas A&M, at Appalachian State on a blocked FG, Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals, Virginia Tech twice), but even with all that I believe the victory over NC State was number one, and it was all the sweeter because of who it was against. There’s more work to do. Clemson, as every reader of this article knows, stopped Louisville when it mattered to stay at 2 losses in the ACC, so the victory over NC State didn’t seal the title, but it dramatically improved the chances.
Ryan: For all its faults, the ACC generally has very good QB play. We entered this year expecting Sam Howell (UNC), DJ Uiagalelei (Clemson), and D’Eriq King (Miami) to lead this year’s crop of ACC QBs, but they — and their teams — have disappointed. Instead, it is Brennan Armstrong (UVA), Kenny Pickett (Pitt), and Sam Hartman (Wake Forest) who are having breakout campaigns. How does Sam Hartman stack up against other ACC QBs? What does he do well? What weaknesses, if any, have you seen? Do you expect him back in 2022?
Robert: I would say that Sam Hartman is right up there with the best QB’s in the ACC and in the country. If you look at the Expected Points Added statistic, he ranks third nationally behind just C.J. Stroud and Stetson Bennett. Hartman just broke the school record for career touchdowns, and could absolutely put that record to a point where it is never broken if he plays for the next two seasons. He’s typically very accurate. He only has 8 interceptions on the year compared to 30 touchdown passes, and has averaged more than 9 yards/attempt. He can also take off when he needs to and has 9 rushing touchdowns and averages more than 4 yards/carry.
He has had some issues in recent games with the RPO being a little too close to the line in the pocket and has gotten some balls batted down. He also sometimes holds onto the ball a little too long trying to find an open receiver when I feel like he could take off and get a few extra yards, but some of the time when he holds onto it so long he finds open receivers down field. I expect him back in 2022.
Ryan: Wake Forest has benefitted more than many other teams from bringing back a large number of “Super Seniors” due to the COVID waiver. How big a part does that play in this season’s success? With the waiver also applying to current second, third, and fourth year players, will this rule disproportionately help Wake Forest in the year’s to come too?
Robert: Oh it has been a huge component for us, particularly on defense. three of our four leading tacklers are super seniors. It allowed us to bring back Miles Fox, who was first team All-ACC last season, as well as defensive lineman Sulaiman Kamara, who provides quality depth for us on the defensive line and has played in 55 games during his career. Without these guys, we’re not nearly the team that we are. It’s tough to say whether it will disproportionately help Wake moving forward. I think so many teams and players are struggling with the ‘22 recruiting class size as a result because it’s tough for guys to know if they want to use their extra year or not. Though I will say that one way we could disproportionately benefit in the future is that Sam Hartman is still somehow a sophomore despite being in the 2018 recruiting class and playing 9 games as a true freshman. How did that happen? Jamie Newman edged him out to be in the starter in 2019, so Clawson wisely used the four games or fewer redshirt rule to our advantage, and then 2020 was a “free” year due to COVID, so he can play for two more seasons if he wants.
Ryan: Clemson has lost four players to transfer in the middle of the season (Dixon, Dukes, Charleston, Tchio), and Coach Swinney has never added a player from the transfer portal. This growing trend in college football is hurting Clemson’s roster. How has the transfer portal impacted Wake Forest? Have they lost any key pieces? Are any transfers currently playing a major role for the Deacs?
Robert: The transfer portal has been a mixed bag for the Demon Deacons. Kenneth Walker III, who is now third in the latest Heisman odds, transferred from Wake Forest to Michigan State after last season. He was featured plenty for the Demon Deacons, as he had 13 touchdowns in just 8 games last year, but he decided to move on. Obviously, things are going quite well for him, but it’s remarkable that Wake Forest was able to lose someone of that caliber and still be 9-1 and atop the ACC Atlantic.
Part of the reason Wake has been able to do that is with the help of the transfer portal. Christian Turner is a former 4-star running back from Michigan who transferred to Wake Forest and has provided added depth to Wake’s backfield. Wake’s defense has also benefited from the transfer portal, as they’ve added 2020 first team All-ACC selection Miles Fox (Old Dominion), and very quality defensive rotation players in defensive back Malik Mustapha (Richmond) and Luiji Vilain (Michigan). I believe that Wake will continue to generate the majority of its roster through high school recruiting, redshirting, and developing, but I suspect that Wake Forest will utilize the transfer portal several times a year to add depth and rotation pieces.
Ryan: Coach Clawson may be the most overlooked coach in the country. He isn’t ultra charismatic, goofy, or controversial, but he seems to be maximizing Wake Forest’s potential. With a ton of openings and potential opening in the coaching carousel this off-season, what is your level of concern with him leaving for a bigger job?
Robert: I don’t know enough about exactly what openings there will be to be able to say, but I’ll certainly acknowledge that his star has never been brighter. Wake fans have known for years how great of a coach we have, and I’m thrilled that he’s getting national recognition. We could not ask for a better football coach. His coaching mentality and personality are absolutely perfect fits for Wake Forest. Wake Forest’s football program has been ranked in the top 15 of the AP poll 12 times, and four of those are the last four weeks. He’s built us into a consistent winner. We’d never made four consecutive bowl games before he arrived, and this year we’ll go to our sixth straight. He’s gotten our program to the point where you need to be a very attractive program to lure him away.
Wake just announced a $20 million gift from former player Bob McCreary, who has contributed about $55 million to Wake in his lifetime, for a new football complex. This is in addition to the state of the art Sports Performance Center and Indoor Practice Facility that are on campus. The school has invested $100 million in football in recent years, so they are seeing what we can do with the right coach and the right investments.
Ryan: Starting linebacker Ryan Smenda Jr. was flagged for targeting on a kickoff return. Since it occurred in the second half, he will miss the first half against Clemson. How significant is that loss? Also, QB Sam Hartman looked pretty hobbled late in the game. Does it sound like he will be relatively healthy by Saturday’s game?
Robert: Smenda is a big loss for us. He’s our second leading tackler this season and has been one of our top three tacklers for each of the past three seasons. Fortunately, he’ll be able to play in the second half and bring in some fresh legs, but his presence will be missed.
I assume Sam Hartman be good to go by Saturday, but I agree with you that he didn’t look 100% near the end of the game. He’s put on a fair amount of weight since arriving on campus, but he’s still not a huge guy.
Ryan: Clemson has never lost to Wake Forest under Coach Swinney, but the Demon Deacons look like the objectively better team. A loss would snap Clemson’s 33-game home win streak and run of 10-consecutive 10-win seasons. Does Wake Forest get their first win in Death Valley since 1998?
Robert: Really tough to say. I know this is a down year by Clemson’s lofty standards, but if you look at Sagarin Ratings, they are rated the same. Wake’s offense is 4th in FEI ratings and while they haven’t faced anyone as good as Clemson’s 7th rated defense, NC State’s is 19th, and they dropped 45 on them. In fact, Wake has yet to score fewer than 35 in any game this season, while Clemson has only scored 30 or more against three FBS opponents. I like that this game is at noon, as I believe it’s advantageous as a road team. I’m so damn proud of this team and how far this program has come that I can’t not pick them to win this one and clinch the program’s first ACC Atlantic title since 2006. Give me the Deacs to win 38-35.
We owe Robert a huge thank you for these in-depth answers! Robert is a Wake Forest alumnus and a former lead editor for SB Nation’s Wake Forest website. He is also a proud Winston-Salem resident and made me feel at home when I moved there fresh out of college years ago. For that, I’ll be forever grateful. Be sure to give him a follow on social media and share your thoughts on his answers. You can find him at @Robert_Reinhard.