No. 1 Clemson looks for seventh straight victory against a traditional whipping boy
It is hard for Clemson fans this week to not think about the cherished 1981 national championship team. Not only because the Tigers are again the top-ranked football team in the land, but because they are going to play Wake Forest.
Anyone with even token knowledge of the history of the two programs knows the significance of the score. When third-ranked Clemson trounced Wake Forest by that score on Halloween Day in 1981, it established the Tigers as a true national championship contender.
True, Clemson was ranked third in the country at the time, but the Atlantic Coast Conference had put only one team in a New Year's Day bowl since 1961.
Prior to the game, though the Tigers were one of three undefeated teams in the country and their victory against defending national champion Georgia meant they had beaten a higher ranked team than either fellow unbeatens Penn State or Pitt had, the Tigers had not received a single first-place vote in the AP Poll.
After the game, Clemson received nine. The Tigers were on their way.
The Demon Deacons (3-7) come into this game just as they did in 1981, with three victories. But if there is any historical karma on Wake Forest's side, perhaps it is that No. 1 Clemson (10-0)already has enjoyed its 58-point victory this season.
Furthermore, if Wake Forest were to pull the upset, it would likely be as historic victory for the Deacons as that long-ago game was for Clemson.
College Football Podcast: Week 12 Preview
Wake Forest at Clemson
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Clemson -29
Three Things To Watch
1. How will Clemson's defense play?
The Tigers' defense, led by junior defensive lineman Shaq Lawson, is allowing less than 300 yards a game this season and is ranked seventh nationally. But immediately after shutting out Miami 58-0, the Tigers allowed 41 points in a 56-41 shootout and 242 rushing yards last week against Syracuse.
The latter is Wake Forest's key to victory. The Demon Deacons played reasonably effective ball control last week against Notre Dame, possessing the ball for more than 10 minutes longer than the Fighting Irish, running 74 plays to Notre Dame's 49, and outgaining them by 58 yards.
2. So how will Wake run the ball?
Herein lies the problem. No Wake Forest running back is averaging four or more yards a carry this year. The Deacs have two freshmen tackles to block Lawson. And instead of having a fullback lead sweeps, head coach Dave Clawson has often preferred to run a single back set out of a shotgun. Even in a 4th-and-goal situation from the Notre Dame one yard line last week, the Deacs lined up in this formation, which might be why Wake Forest only scored once in four red zone situations against the Irish.
Freshman Tyler Bell is the Deacs' leading rusher, but incredibly nine of Wake Forest's 10 rushing touchdowns this season have been scored by its quarterbacks. On passing downs Wake often asks its offensive linemen to line up in a "V" with two point stances, but such a style lends itself up to gaps, and frankly even though both quarterbacks John Wolford and Kendall Hinton have long rushes this year for touchdowns, a strategy lending itself to open lanes for Lawson, who has 7.5 sacks and 10 more tackles for a loss this year, seems doomed to failure.
3. How will Clemson move the ball?
Throwing. Yes, running back Wayne Gallman already has more than 1,000 yards rushing, but quarterback Deshaun Watson is completing 70 percent of his passes, has a nice 23:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and has thrown for 297 yards (is 297 close enough to 300 for you?) or more the last four times he's played a full game. He's also done it despite the fact Mike Williams, a 1,000-yard receiver last season, suffered a broken neck in Clemson's opener, sidelining him for the rest of this season.
Watson has also rushed for more than 500 yards, which has allowed him to become a late Heisman Trophy candidate. It's likely Dabo Swinney will try to pad Watson's stats in an effort to best Alabama running back Derrick Henry at the Downtown Athletic Club.
If Wake Forest was the team Clemson proved they were national championship material against in '81, perhaps this year the Deacs are the team Watson will prove he is Heisman worthy in.
Both of these teams are surprisingly young; Wayne Gallman and Deshaun Watson are both sophomores, for instance, and Shaq Lawson is a junior, though he'll likely enter the NFL Draft after the season.
But realistically, the question here isn't if Wake Forest can win. It's if the Clemson Tiger will have to ask the Demon Deacon help him with post-score pushups again.
Prediction: Clemson 82... (Just kidding, Clemson won't score 12 touchdowns again... or miss two extra points)
Prediction: Clemson 38, Wake Forest 9
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.