Those within Clemson’s program don’t seem too surprised to see little ol’ Wake Forest standing in their way of the Atlantic Division championship this weekend. After all, the Tigers weren’t exactly expected to win the division, either.
“Well, we were 6-7 last year, and we were a long way away from competing for the division,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “You know, that's just college football.”
It’s true: Both of these teams have been surprises this year. Wake Forest, though, was 3-9 in 2010, and picked by the media in July to finish last in the Atlantic Division. Ask Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, and even he will tell you he’s a little bit surprised to see his Deacs trailing only No. 9-ranked Clemson in the division standings heading into Saturday’s game at Death Valley.
“I really thought we were going to be a better football team, but I knew our schedule was really, really tough,” Grobe said. “That's our biggest issue right now. We're better, but we're playing so many great teams every week, it's hard to catch your breath sometimes. But I knew we'd be better. I didn't expect that we'd be this late in the season and still have a chance to win the division.”
That’s exactly what opportunity awaits, though, as Wake Forest heads to Clemson on Saturday for a game that could put the Deacs in the driver’s seat in the Atlantic Division. Wake Forest has not won in Death Valley since 1998, and Clemson has won each of the past five games against the Deacs there, outscoring them 205-73 in the process. Despite the history of the series, Clemson defensive end Andre Branch said the Tigers learned a lesson from their Oct. 29 loss to Georgia Tech: To expect every opponents’ best shot and not to take anyone lightly -- including the smallest school in the BCS.
“Wake Forest was young last year, but we knew when we played them last year that they had a lot of talent,” said Branch. “Those players are just maturing now. We don’t want to take any opponent lightly. They’ve always had talent, but at the same time they were young at certain spots. They have a veteran O-line, and that’s where it all starts, in the trenches.”
Despite Wake’s success this year, the Deacs are facing an uphill battle against a Clemson team that ranks among the top 15 in the country in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The Tigers had a bye week to rest and regroup from their lone loss of the season, while Wake Forest is coming off its only back-to-back losses of the season -- an uncharacteristic turnover-filled performance against North Carolina and a respectable loss to a talented Notre Dame team.
Regardless of what outsiders expect, Wake Forest receiver Chris Givens said the Deacs can leave Death Valley with a win.
“We’re pretty confident,” Givens said. “Clemson is a great team, and they’re doing great things this year, but we feel like we’re a good team as well. If we put all of the parts together on Saturday and play how we’re capable of playing, it should be a good game.”
One thing these two teams have in common? A win over Florida State, which was easily Wake Forest’s biggest win of the season. Wake Forest is 1-18 all-time against ranked Clemson teams, and Grobe is 0-3 against them.
Still, it’s a far cry from where the program was at this time a year ago -- 2-8 with just one ACC win.
“It's nice to have something to play for,” Grobe said. “Last year, we were out of so many games by halftime, so young. We're still a pretty young football team. But it's nice to have something to play for. I think the thing that keeps your feet on the ground is knowing how talented Clemson is.”
Wake Forest isn’t exactly a pushover. The Deacs have the No. 32 passing offense in the country, and the ACC’s leader in receiving yards per game in Givens.
“They're a good program, incredibly well coached, and if you look at their roster, they redshirt just about everybody,” Swinney said. “They were very young in some spots last year, and a lot of those guys are just growing up. They do a great job with teaching their system and developing guys within their program. They have a lot of pride in the program. So I'm not surprised at all. Wake is a team that can line up and beat anybody on any given day.”
This Saturday, though, is the one that could mean the most -- for both teams.