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Wake Forest in prime position against the preseason favorites

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Following Clemson's routine team meeting last Tuesday after the Tigers' loss to Maryland, junior center Thomas Austin asked the coaching staff if he could address the team in a players-only meeting.

"We had all Monday off to chew on the loss," Austin said of the Tigers' collapse in a 20-17 home defeat to the Terps on Sept. 27. "It's impossible not to hear what's being said about us in the media, just walking across campus, and classmates and that kind of thing."

So the coaches left the meeting room, and Austin took it upon himself to remind the Tigers to put their "blinders" on and "keep pushing through."

"I think our coaches do a good job of getting us prepared and getting us up for games, but ultimately it's gotta come from us, it's gotta come from the players," he said. "I feel like we have very strong senior leadership on the team and we needed to step up and take hold of the situation and not let the coaches have to do it every time. It was the kind of thing I thought I needed to say and the team as a whole needed to hear."

We'll find out tonight if they listened.

Both Atlantic Division programs are coming off disappointing losses to teams they probably should have beaten, and both have had a bye week to correct mistakes and move forward. The difference is Wake Forest (3-1, 1-0 ACC) is ranked No. 21 in both the AP and Coaches' polls and sitting atop the division standings, and Clemson (3-2, 1-1), once overrated as the No. 9 team in the nation and the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the ACC title, hasn't had an impressive win yet this season. Instead, the Tigers have fallen far below expectations and the coaching staff has come under fire for it. Again.

If Clemson wants to stay in the hunt for the program's first conference title since 1991, it can't afford to lose this game.

"It definitely is a game we know there's not a lot of wiggle room in our conference," Austin said. "We can't afford a loss. We definitely have our backs against the wall."

Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said the staff and players have a heightened sense of urgency for this game, but it's because of their place behind Wake Forest in the league standings -- not the criticism they've faced from outsiders since their loss to Maryland.

"That's the one thing you can't have your team do, you can't have your team play uptight and afraid to make a mistake," said Bowden, who is 7-2 against Wake Forest. "You've got to go out there and play with a lot of emotion, a lot of effort and a lot of energy, but you've also gotta be loose. If your players go out there afraid to make a mistake and they make one mistake, then I think your team won't perform as well as it can. You've got to make them feel a sense of urgency, but again, they've also got to go out there and play loose and have fun."

Historically, Clemson has owned this series against Wake Forest (56-16-1), including the past two seasons when they have outscored the Demon Deacons 71-27. Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said he's never seen the Tigers play better than they did last year against the Deacs, a 44-10 loss Grobe called "embarrassing," and said his team "didn't show up" for.

"For us, the key is going to be, they're so explosive offensively with big-play guys, you've just got to hang in there," Grobe said. "You know they're going to get some plays, you hope they're not too many home run plays, and you hope that you can make a few plays on defense and then their defense is so strong that your concern is turning the football over."

Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner, who had a self-described "rough game" with five turnovers in their 24-17 loss to Navy, said the Deacons have put that loss behind them.

"I think that's one of the biggest things for our team this year, we've got a lot of old guys," Skinner said. "Being in different situations before, it really helps when it comes down to the fourth quarter, not letting things get to you too bad. That's a big part of winning. ... We know what it's like to be behind, we know what it's like to be ahead. I feel like we never really get too high or too down."

The latter is exactly what Clemson is trying to avoid.

"You're anxious to see how your team responds with their backs against the wall and you really don't know until they perform, so we'll see [Thursday] night how the leadership of this team has worked," Bowden said. "They've worked hard."