In what appears to be a much improved ACC Atlantic Division, one of the biggest games of the year will take place this Saturday when Clemson visits Wake Forest. Both teams come in at 3-0 and are ranked in the latest AP Top 25.
Louisiana Tech hung with Clemson through the first half last Saturday night, but the fifth-ranked Tigers were never truly challenged in winning 48-20. Wake Forest, on the other hand, had to stop a Liberty two-point conversion with 1:11 remaining to preserve a nail-biting, 37-36 victory.
Clemson has dominated the all-time series, winning 69 times in 87 meetings, including the last 13 in a row.
No. 5 Clemson at No. 21 Wake Forest
When Clemson Has the Ball
With freshman Cade Klubnik waiting in the wings, the performance of Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei was a hot topic of conversation coming into the year, and that talking point has lingered. But in reality, Uiagalelei has been more than solid so far. He's completing nearly 65 percent of his passes and has a 5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has shown more mobility as well, becoming more of a threat as a runner with his trimmed-down frame.
Uiagalelei has spread the ball out amongst his receiving corps, with nine players catching at least three passes. Beaux Collins, Antonio Williams, and Joseph Ngata are the big-play threats, but they have also had too many drops so far this season. Will Shipley and a running game that has been inconsistent for the better part of two years got well against Louisiana Tech with 280 yards. While the passing game has been efficient, being able to run the ball week in and week out is vital for this Clemson offense.
And especially this week. Liberty ran for 177 yards last week, which opened up passing lanes for quarterback Kaidon Salter. It was the first time this season anyone had success running on Wake, so we have to see if that was a blip or if higher-caliber ground attacks can do damage against the Demon Deacons. Senior linebacker Ryan Smenda Jr. is the heart and soul of this unit, but sophomore safety Malik Mustapha exploded on the scene in the Liberty game, making plays all over the field and finishing with 13 tackles and two sacks.
When Wake Forest Has the Ball
When it was announced that Sam Hartman was going to miss time with a mystery ailment, Demon Deacon fans everywhere went into a state of panic. Knowing what we know now — that it was a blood clot that needed two surgeries to fully repair — it seems like a miracle that he is even playing. But he is back. Fully back.
The Wake quarterback has thrown for 625 yards and seven touchdowns in his two starts and is averaging 8.8 yards per attempt. He can stretch the field with receivers like A.T. Perry, Taylor Morin, and Donavon Greene, but sophomore Jahmal Banks also has to be accounted for after his six-catch, two-touchdown performance against Liberty.
The running game was non-existent last Saturday, and that has to be a part of the offense against Clemson. Wake Forest's attack is built around the long, drawn-out RPOs, and if the run is not part of the offense, the Deacons will struggle to move the chains against a defense as stout as the one they will see on Saturday.
Since 2017, Wake Forest has averaged roughly 35 points per game. But against Clemson, that number drops to 14 points per contest. Of course, few teams the Deacons play has the same level of talent as the Tigers, and that is especially true up front. Heavy pressure, especially on the interior of the line, can disrupt Wake's RPO game. Injuries and other missing personnel have made the Clemson defense a bit different over the past few weeks, but tackles Bryan Bresee and Tyler Davis are back on the depth chart, with reinforcements returning in the secondary. When fully stocked, which may be the case this week, this defense will quickly get back to its typical, nasty self.
Even though Clemson and Wake Forest are a combined 6-0, each team has shown some vulnerabilities and that was especially true this past weekend. The keys to this game will be whether or not the Tigers' offense can maintain its efficiency against a better defense and whether or not the Demon Deacons' offensive line can hold up against Clemson's ferocious front. The offense has shown the ability to be patient, and I believe that will continue this week, grinding out yards with Shipley and hitting an occasional shot downfield. And if history shows us anything, Wake will not be able to successfully keep the Tigers' D from creating havoc. While it may not be a complete whitewashing, Clemson will seize control early and go home with a comfortable win.
Prediction: Clemson 34, Wake Forest 17
Podcast: Week 4 Preview, Predictions and Picks Against the Spread
– Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, focusing on the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
*Price as of publication.