College GameDay will be in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this weekend for Wake Forest's battle with Clemsonand the game will be in primetime on ABC. So despite the wackiest offseason leading into what could be a bizarre 2020 campaign, the top-ranked Tigers again enter the fall as one of the marquee attractions in college football.
Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne will generate a lot of offense and defensive coordinator Brent Venables has a number of high-end athletes to utilize. Furthermore, the schedule is such that there may not be many serious tests for the Tigers this season.
But going to Wake Forest is a tricky way to start the year. Head coach Dave Clawson has guided the Demon Deacons to four straight bowl games and another postseason appearance could be in the cards this season. A team that relied heavily on its explosive offense may have a different look this fall as the defense is the group with more experience.
Wake has won just 17 of the 85 meetings between the two programs and has not beaten Clemson since 2008.
Clemson at Wake Forest
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Clemson -32.5
When Wake Forest Has the Ball
The Demon Deacons have finished in the Top 30 nationally in total offense in each of the last three seasons. That will probably change this time around. Only two starters return, offensive linemen Zach Tom and Sean Maginn. Starting quarterback Jamie Newman left Wake Forest (and then left college football altogether) and star receiver Sage Surratt decided to opt out.
There are still some nice pieces, however. Quarterback Sam Hartman was a solid producer as a freshman in 2018 before suffering a broken leg. Hartman was beaten out by Newman for the starting spot last year, but he is a tough competitor that can make plays. He needs to find a top target and that could be redshirt freshman Donavon Greene. Greene maintained a year of eligibility by playing in just four games last year, but those four games were pretty special as he had 13 catches for 249 yards and two touchdowns.
Christian Beal-Smith and Kenneth Walker III will split carries and could provide a solid running threat providing the offensive line holds up. Despite the return of Tom and Maginn, this is a huge area of concern. Depth and experience are problems up front and those are not issues you want when playing Clemson.
As such, it hard to see how Wake will be able to effectively run the ball on the Clemson defense. Even without Xavier Thomas at end, the Tigers on the defensive line and are more than capable on the second level. Tyler Davis is a force in the middle and is supported by a number of quality veterans along the line. Linebacker James Skalski will once again be a tackling machine, meaning Wake will probably look to test a secondary that returns only corner Derion Kendrick.
When Clemson Has the Ball
The good news for Wake Forest is that their defensive front returns all seven starters from last year. Carlos Basham Jr. is an All-ACC defensive end and starting linebackers Ryan Smenda and Ja'Cquez Williams know how to tackle. And they’re going up against a Clemson offensive line that has just one returning starter: left tackle Jackson Carman.
But, of course, we know it's not going to be easy for Deacs defensive coordinator Lyle Hemphill. The new starters along the Clemson offensive line have played their fair share of snaps and will be supporting a special collection of skill-position talent.
The Wake secondary is the weakest unit on the defense and despite having a young group of receivers, Lawrence will look to move the ball through the air. Amari Rodgers will continue to be a solid option for Clemson's quarterback, but the emergence of sophomores Frank Ladson Jr. and Joseph Ngata will really make the offense hum. Also, for the first time in a while, tight end could be a viable receiving option for the Tigers as Braden Galloway returns from his suspension.
While the Demon Deacons, may be stout on the defensive front, Etienne has been able to run against good defenses during his distinguished career. With the threat of Lawrence throwing the ball, there eventually will be running lanes and Clemson's all-time leading rusher will give the Tigers balance once again.
Wake Forest is looking for their fifth straight winning season, something they haven't done since a run under head coach D.C. Walker from 1944 to '48. Despite their recent success, staying close to Clemson has been impossible. The past two games have been especially rough with Clemson winning both by a combined score of 115-6.
Not a lot will change this year. Clawson will field another team that is capable of hanging with most anyone... outside of Clemson. It may take some time, but the Tiger offense will get rolling. Lawrence will eventually find cohesion with his inexperienced receivers and while Etienne won't run wild, he will be effective enough. Meanwhile, the Clemson defense will lock down the Wake running game, making the Deacs one dimensional and allowing the Tiger defensive linemen a free reign at attacking Hartman.
It may not be a 50-point win, but Clemson will start their title quest with an easy victory.
Prediction: Clemson 38, Wake Forest 7
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.