WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Late Saturday night, after surviving a furious upset bid by Liberty, Dave Clawson sat in a chair in the quiet coaches locker room at Wake Forest. Hair splayed haphazardly from hat head, Clawson delivered occasional exhales of relief after a four-hour whiplash of a game.
In the aftermath of Wake Forest's 37-36 victory over Liberty, preserved only by a failed two-point conversion from the Flames with 1:11 left, Clawson's demeanor demonstrated the theme of night -- winning is hard.
Perhaps the highest compliment to Clawson's nine-year tenure at Wake Forest is that the victory carried with it the disappointing aura of a loss, a sign that expectations have recalibrated so much that winning crisply matters as much as simply winning. But for Clawson, explaining a hailstorm of 70 yards in penalties, defensive busts and stretches of sputtering offense is much easier at 3-0. Hence the exhales.
As the Demon Deacons' performance dropped them two spots in the AP poll and quarterback Sam Hartman looked as happy postgame as finding a stack of parking tickets on his windshield, it's a reminder of how Clawson has rewired Wake Forest's football DNA.
After reaching the ACC title game last year and being ranked for 16 consecutive AP polls, Clawson hasn't forgotten how tenuous a program's stature can be when a traditional have-not defies gravity.
"We don't get this one and you're staring at Clemson and Florida State next," Clawson told ESPN after the game. "And then, oh yeah, you worry about not becoming nationally relevant again."
Liberty scores to get within one point, but Wake Forest's defense holds strong to deny the Flames the 2-point conversion.
No. 21 Wake Forest hosts No. 5 Clemson on Saturday (noon, ABC and ESPN App), marking a collision of the strong program Wake Forest has become with its annual test of how far it needs to go to be elite. The Deacons had an 11-year stretch without being nationally ranked from 2008 to 2019, and last year's 11-3 season saw them peak at No. 10 in the AP poll. The distance Wake Forest has to go to claim ACC supremacy has clearly shrunk, but Clawson still enters the game 0-8 against Clemson.
Is the gap shrinking? Last year, for the first time since 2014, Clemson both missed the College Football Playoff and did not win the ACC. Even as Wake has outpunched its weight class and Clemson has fallen slightly off a run of supreme dominance, there's still a perception of a significant distance between the programs.
The Deacons have lost by an average of 38.5 points the past four years in this series yet enter Saturday as just seven-point underdogs. That number is so small because Clemson's offense, while still averaging 41.3 points, has been inconsistent and disjointed at times so far this season.
There's also some unknown with the Tigers, as they have two new coordinators, and questions linger about quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, even as he has distinctly improved his completion percentage (from 55.6% to 64.8%) and thrown just one interception in 88 attempts over three games.
Wake Forest enters the game with a better quarterback (Hartman), a more refined offensive scheme and a veteran crew that features 39 players in their fifth, sixth or seventh years. The Deacons are anxious to take one of the few final steps remaining to push the program forward. If you exclude the COVID-19 year in 2020, Wake Forest has the second-best overall record of any ACC team (44-25) since 2016, trailing only Clemson (68-7).
"They're still the measuring stick," Clawson said of Clemson. "They've been the class of the ACC, and our goal is to be the best program in the ACC. And they're a tough out. I'm sure they'll have a very talented, very good team coming in here."
The Demon Deacons won two total ACC games Clawson's first two seasons, 2014 and 2015, beating Virginia Tech, 6-3, in double overtime after a scoreless regulation in his first season and topping Boston College 3-0 the next year. Wake Forest has evolved from Neanderthal to space-aged on offense, as the Deacons finished No. 4 nationally in scoring offense last year (41.0) The 37 points against Liberty came with plenty of grumbling about a subpar performance by the offense.
Has Wake Forest come far enough? Liberty offered a blueprint to slow Wake's slow-mesh offense, the unconventional scheme of coordinator Warren Ruggiero that has become trendy enough that Stanford adopted it and debuted it against USC earlier this year.
Liberty's defensive ends proved so effective in getting to the quarterback and disrupting the edges that Wake Forest ran little of the slow-mesh concept. The Deacons finished with just 21 rushing yards, and Hartman threw for 325 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
"I think we just played a little more sloppy [Saturday] than normal," Hartman said. "And I think it starts with me and keeping us out of the second-, third-and-long. We became one-dimensional."
Much of how Wake can further overhaul the perception of its place near the top of the ACC will be based on how it fares against Clemson. The Deacs will need star receivers A.T. Perry and Donavon Greene to play up to their capabilities, as they entered the season billed as one of the country's best tandems.
They'll also need a dynamic performance from Hartman, who missed nearly a month of football with a blood clot issue. He required immediate surgery on Aug. 9 that forced him to miss Wake Forest's opener against VMI. Clawson pointed out that missing a month of football brings with it some inherent timing and rust issues.
Hartman said going through that health scare has taught him "how precious everything is," but he knows that perspective won't alter any realities on Saturday. "I think you kind of forget about it," he said. "You gotta play. Nobody really cares when you have to get on the field and perform."
The worry for the Deacons will be that the Tigers have what many consider the country's best defensive front, which could grind down the Wake Forest offense the same way Liberty did. Wake moved the ball reasonably well against Clemson last season in a 48-27 loss -- 406 yards -- but turned it over three times and yielded 543 yards.
There's another sellout expected Saturday at Truist Field, as the college football world gets another chance to see how far the Deacons have come. But as Clawson reflected a bit on Wake's progress and challenges, he acknowledges that he works in a profession where he's obligated to keep pushing forward.
"This profession is so unforgiving, you have such tunnel vision during the season," Clawson said. "Do you know anybody in this job that really ever takes time to reflect on it?"
It will be a referendum without sentimentality Saturday as Wake Forest attempts to continue to close the gap with the class of the ACC. Winning is always hard. And the closer you get to the top, the harder the biggest wins are to capture.