Game in Death Valley to shed light on Atlantic Division race

Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich

Saturday's game between Clemson and Wake Forest has been overshadowed this week by the potential BCS implications surrounding the Coastal Division matchup between Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, but what happens in Death Valley on Saturday will also be important to the ACC standings.

The Demon Deacons hold a slight lead in the Atlantic Division, a half game ahead of Boston College and Maryland. Clemson, despite its 2-3 start, can still win the division but will need some help after an embarrassing road loss to Maryland.

It boils down to this: Clemson has the better athletes and Wake Forest has the experienced coaches.

So who wins?

Usually the team with the veteran quarterback, but Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe has never won in Death Valley.

While Clemson’s offense has struggled, Wake Forest senior quarterback Riley Skinner has been setting records almost every week. Clemson’s defense hasn’t been the problem -- the Tigers are No. 27 in the country in scoring defense, holding opponents to 17.8 points per game. They’ve done a good job of pressuring quarterbacks and pushing players back for lost yardage. But Skinner is No. 5 in the country in passing efficiency and Wake Forest’s offense is on target to break the school record for total offense in a season. Through the first six games of the year, the Deacons are averaging 426 yards per game and have had 400 or more yards of total offense in four of six games.

“They’re the best offense we’ve played, for sure,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “They’re very balanced, running it about 38 times a game and throwing it about 32. The biggest thing is affecting the quarterback. … This guy has 37 starts and is a very savvy player. He’s a winner and understands exactly what he’s doing on the field. The No. 1 thing for us is we have to be able to affect their quarterback, do a great job with our eyes and play great technique from a coverage standpoint.”

On the flip side, with eight new defenders this year, Wake Forest’s defense hasn’t been able to make adjustments as quickly as it would with veteran players, and the speed of players like C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford will be difficult to contain.

“We don’t see anybody that has more talent than Clemson,” said Grobe. “They've got a good coaching staff and they've played a brutal schedule. Georgia Tech and TCU are two of the top teams in the country. They've played both of them.”

The only teams they’ve beaten, though, are Middle Tennessee and Boston College.

Swinney said his Tigers had a “real productive open date,” and should be as healthy as they’ve been since this summer. He expects to get left tackle Chris Hairston back, and Spiller has finally had time to heal his turf toe. Clemson fans shouldn’t expect many visible personnel or scheme changes on Saturday, despite the fact the Tigers are 102nd in the nation right now in total offense and 112th in passing efficiency. Clemson has scored 11 touchdowns this year, and four of them have been nonoffensive.

Instead, the bye week was spent focusing on fundamentals and getting back to the basics like footwork and proper tackling techniques as opposed to reps of different plays.

“Where we’ve had some troubles has been a lack of execution consistently,” Swinney said. “We’ve gone back this week and really tried to coach the details, and fundamentals of play on either side of the ball. … We may not do much, but we’re going to try to do it right. Hopefully we’ll play like we’ve practiced, because we’ve had good practices the past week and a half.”

Meanwhile, though, Wake Forest has had good games.