WHAT WE ARE HEARING: PREVIEW & PREDICTION FOR NO.1 CLEMSON AT WAKE FOREST
- 2020-09-11 17:54:13
Welcome to the 2020 Season Opener edition of What We Are Hearing!
Well, we finally made it through the wilderness, and after the longest, most stressful and uncertain off-season in history, it looks like the No.1 Tigers will kick off the season on Saturday night at Wake Forest. You may recall that I predicted all the way back in March that we would have a college football season one way or another, and I reiterated that again in July when all the pessimists and nay-sayers in the media were certain the season would never take place. Well, they may have been right as far as the Big Ten and Pac-12 are concerned, but the ACC, SEC and Big 12 are forging ahead into the fray as I expected all along. And no one—other than the coaches and players—is more relieved to have a season than Clemson fans because they know what’s at stake. The Tigers are ranked No.1 in both the AP and Coaches’ Preseason Polls for the second straight year. That means Dabo Swinney has joined Notre Dame legend Frank Leahy and Nick Saban as the only coaches in history to have their teams ranked No.1 in six consecutive seasons! It also means the Tigers have are the favorites—especially with Ohio State out of the picture—to make the National Championship Game for an unprecedented 5th time in 6 years and win a 3rd national title in the last 5 years. If the Tigers finish in the top 2 again, they will join Miami as the only programs in history to do so in 5 of 6 seasons. That’s right, not even Alabama or Notre Dame have done that! So it would have been tragic—pardon the use of the word in these times—to Clemson partisans if the 2020 season turned out to be nothing but a rumor.
As I also predicted as soon as the Big Ten and Pac-12 made their announcements to play conference-only schedules, Notre Dame—after over 130 years of stubbornness as a football independent—finally acquiesced and joined the ACC for the 2020 season. They really had no choice unless they wanted to forfeit the entire season, and I proposed that ACC Commissioner John Swofford should have used the opportunity and leverage to force the Irish to join the league permanently. He had Notre Dame over a barrel with the entire season and millions of dollars at stake, but he ended up letting the Irish off the hook with no further obligations after the 2020 season. Therefore, I expect Notre Dame will resume their independence in 2021. But who knows? Perhaps the excitement of playing as a full-time member of a conference and an opportunity for a conference championship game will make them see the light. The Tigers, of course, will travel to South Bend for the first time since the ‘70’s for a likely top-10 showdown in November, and they might have to play the Irish again in Charlotte and/or the College Football Playoff. With only 3 Power Five conferences, it’s very conceivable that both Clemson and Notre Dame could make the CFP if they each go 12-1. Incidentally, Notre Dame opens its season at home against Duke, led by Clemson graduate QB transfer Chase Brice in his first career start. The Irish are favored by 20, but I expect it to be closer and wouldn’t be surprised if ‘ole David Cutcliffe and company pull off the upset.
Before I get into the weeds on Saturday night’s matchup, I want to point out that this season is not just different for the players and coaches but for the media as well. Due to an abundance of caution from all the schools in the ACC, media coverage will be very different this season. You have already seen several games on television that have been called by commentators off-site or from their homes, and I will be taking this same approach for the Wake game and perhaps other road games as well. Since the media is being restricted to the press box with no field access, and all post-game interviews are being conducted online via Zoom, I’ve decided I can bring you better coverage from the safety of my own home without having to worry about travel and being kicked out of the press box an hour after the game ends. I will play it by ear this season, depending on media policies—which will vary from school to school—and I hope to be able to make my first-ever trip to South Bend, but for now, I’ll be watching Clemson on television Saturday night for the first time since 2014! As I have done in the past, I will post live play-by-play in The Valley and will provide post-game interviews, stats and notes as well as photos. No media outlets—even national ones—are being permitted to shoot photography during ACC games this season, which is overkill in my opinion with all the space there is and the effectiveness of masks, but I will be able to provide you with photos taken by the designated pool photographer at each game. I would love for everything to be normal this season, but I’m just grateful that we will be able to watch the Tigers play, and I’ll continue to bring you the very best insight and coverage right here!
Onto the season opener! ESPN College GameDay will be in Winston-Salem for the first time ever, which is ironic since there will be no fans allowed at the GameDay set or in the stadium for the game. It will be the 24th time Clemson has been featured by the pre-game show, and the Tigers had won a nation-long 11 straight appearances before losing to LSU in the National Championship Game.
Saturday kicks off the 125th season of Clemson Football….The Tigers look to win at least 10 games for the 10th straight year under Dabo Swinney, joining Alabama and Florida State as the only programs ever to do so….Clemson is the only program to have won 5 consecutive outright ACC titles and the only program in the nation to win 5 consecutive conference championship games….At 69-5, Clemson has the best record in the nation over the last 5 years; 3 wins better than Alabama and 8 wins better than Ohio State. Clemson has the second-most wins since 2011 behind Alabama….Clemson has the most wins versus Power Five opponents since 2013; 7 more than Ohio State and 8 more than Alabama….Dabo now has the nation’s best active win percentage at .807. Nick Saban’s is .788. Dabo also holds the best all-time ACC win percentage at .828. Bobby Bowden’s was .813….Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 77 weeks. That is the fifth-longest streak all-time, 2 weeks behind USC and 4 weeks behind Florida for 3rd all-time. Clemson has been ranked in the AP Top 5 for 40 consecutive weeks, by far the longest active streak. Next is Ohio State at 14 and Georgia at 7. Clemson’s run of 5 straight top-5 finishes is tied for the sixth-longest streak all-time. One more, and the Tigers will tie Oklahoma; two more and they will tie three other schools for the second-longest. FSU has the record at 14 straight top-5 finishes…..Clemson is 67-17-1 all-time versus Wake Forest, and the Tigers have won 11 straight. Their last loss to the Deacons was on a Thursday night in 2008, after which Tommy Bowden was fired and Dabo Swinney was named Interim Head Coach….The only team Clemson has beaten more times than Wake is South Carolina….This will be Wake’s first season opener against an ACC opponent since 2004, when the Deacs lost to Clemson in overtime….Wake has not beaten a top-5 team since Tennessee in the 1940’s….Clemson and Wake are the only two ACC programs with winning records in each of the last 4 years….Clemson has won 12 straight true road games, tying the school record from 2015-2017….Clemson has won 22 straight games against ACC opponents, a school record….Clemson has won 42 straight Saturday games, the longest active streak in the nation and second-longest ever….Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive 12-win seasons (5) since Penn in 1892. One more would move Clemson ahead of Alabama, which won 11 games last season…Famous Wake alumni include Arnold Palmer, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, Muggsy Bogues, Curtis Strange and actor Carroll O’Connor….
The Deacs will look completely different on offense this season, particularly because of the loss of QB Jamie Newman, who transferred to Georgia and recently decided to opt out for the NFL Draft. Newman was an outstanding duel-threat quarterback last season and a big reason Wake started the season 7-1. Another monumental loss was All-ACC WR Sage Surratt, who also opted out this season for the NFL Draft. In all, the Deacs return just two starters on offense, both offensive linemen.
Their new starting QB is no rookie, however. Sam Hartman, who attended high school in South Carolina, was Wake’s starter as a freshman in 2018 and showed uncommon poise. He was the first true freshman QB to start a season opener in Wake history and went 4-4 before suffering a broken leg against Syracuse, which opened the door for Newman. Hartman passed for almost 2,000 yards before his injury. After a rocky start, he threw 10 TD passes against 3 interceptions in his final 5 games. He played in just 4 games last season behind Newman, throwing for 800 yards with 4 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.
The attrition on offense included all of the Deacs’ biggest play-makers, including the aforementioned Surratt, WR Kendall Hinton, WR Scotty Washington, TE Jack Freudenthal and leading rusher Cade Carney. Newman was the second-leading rusher on the team. In all, Wake probably lost more offensive production from 2019 than any other team in the nation. 5’10, 206-pound sophomore Kenneth Walker (#9) was the third-leading rusher with 579 yards and 4 touchdowns last season, averaging an impressive 5.9 yards per carry last season as a freshman. He will be the starter in the backfield on Saturday along with 5’10, 201-pound redshirt junior Christian Beal-Smith (#26), who rushed for 304 yards and 2 touchdowns last season, averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
The Deacs have plenty of experience on defense, returning 9 starters from last year’s group. They are led by 6’5, 285-pound DE Carlos “Boogie” Basham (#9). The redshirt senior speed rusher had 11 sacks and 18 tackles-for-loss in 2019, and he is a preseason second-team All-American. The matchup between Basham and Jackson Carman and/or Jordan McFadden will be fun to watch! On the back end, look out for free safety Luke Masterson (#12). The 6’2, 220-pound redshirt senior is a versatile athlete who has played linebacker in the past, so he loves contact.
Dave Clawson loves to go warp speed on offense, and the Deacs are usually among the nation’s leaders in fewest seconds between plays. Sam Hartman is in his third year in this offense, so he won’t be rattled. The big question is: who will he throw the ball to and who will make plays? Amazingly, the Deacs’ leading returning WR is 6’2, 198-pound redshirt freshman Donavon Greene (#7), who only played in 4 games last season. He had 13 catches for 249 yards and 2 touchdowns. They have a big receiver in 6’5, 212-pound redshirt sophomore AT Perry (#89), but he only had 4 catches for 62 yards and one touchdown last season. They also have a grad transfer in 6’4, 206-pound Donald Stewart (#2). It will be interesting to see if Clawson sticks with his modus operandi and goes high-tempo on offense despite all the new pieces and inexperience. That can backfire quickly if you’re unable to get first downs. The fast pace gives the defense little time to rest on the sideline, so after a few three-and-outs, the defense can become gassed in a hurry—especially given the Clemson offense they are dealing with.
Finally, Wake has several players who played high school ball in South Carolina, including QB Sam Hartman, backup LB AJ Williams (#22) and returning starting place kicker Nick Sciba, a very reliable junior. Sciba was 24-25 last season and 5-6 from 40-49. He did not attempt any field goals from 50 or longer, and he was perfect on PAT’s.
The Tigers are in great shape from a physical and mental standpoint. With marquee players opting out all over the country, it’s remarkable that the Tigers didn’t have a single defector. That’s a testament to the character of the players on this team, the leadership, team chemistry and the coaching staff. It also says something about what this team has in front of it and wants to accomplish. That loss to LSU ending a 29-game win streak left a bitter taste in their mouths, and they want to climb back to the top of the mountain. It’s why Travis Etienne decided to make the NFL wait. Trevor Lawrence could have easily opted out, and he’d be a lock for the No.1 pick in the NFL Draft with a fortune waiting. But that’s not what he’s all about. This team has been through as much as any team in history between the pandemic, all the social unrest and the uncertainty of whether they will see the football field in 2020, but they have gone about their business with the utmost maturity, grace and professionalism. They are an example to the rest of the student body. The football team didn’t have a single positive COVID test upon returning from a 3-day break following August camp, and that speaks to their determination, vigilance and desire to play.
Everyone knows the offensive and defensive superlatives of this team, so I won’t repeat them all here. Trev & Trav is all one needs to say. Trevor Lawrence was voted Preseason ACC Player of the Year, ahead of the two-time reigning POY Travis Etienne, who finished second in the voting. If Travis should win the award again this year, he will be the first-ever three-time recipient and the only Power Five player other than Herschel Walker to do so. The numbers Etienne has put up are staggering—especially when you consider that he has only played 2-3 quarters of games for the majority of his career. His 7.8 career yards per carry is tied for 3rd all-time, well ahead of Walker’s.
We know what we’re going to get out of Trev & Trav. The two main questions offensively are at wide receiver and on the offensive line. After losing Higgins to the NFL and Ross to an off-season neck surgery, the Tigers will have to replace that production with veteran Amari Rodgers at the slot and veteran Cornell Powell on the outside along with sophomores Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson. All of them are plenty talented enough to do just that and then some, and look out for the new No.13! Redshirt freshman WR Brannon Spector is going to be star. You can also expect true freshman EJ Williams to make a splash like Ross did as a freshman. In fact, Williams was a high school teammate of Ross in Alabama, and he is even faster than his mentor. True freshman Ajou Ajou from Canada has caught Dabo’s eye in camp and has a tremendous upside, but he is probably more of a project than Williams. Speaking of freshmen, I can’t wait to see the new “Thunder & Lightning,” as Dabo has called them, in action for the first time! Freshman RB Kobe Pace (#14) is a power runner, and Demarkcus Bowman (#1) can fly. I didn’t think I’d ever hear Dabo compare a freshman back to CJ Spiller, but that’s exactly what he did! Incidentally, CJ is now officially on the staff as grad assistant, so he gets to coach Bowman and the other backs!
As for the offensive line, the starting group should be formidable despite replacing 4 starters. The reports are that they have taken on OG Matt Bockhorst’s mean mentality and have developed great chemistry and communication. Cade Stewart will be the starter at center and is expected to pick up right where Pollard left off. The Tigers have had a great run at the position from Guillermo to Falcinelli to Pollard and now Stewart. OT Jordan McFadden will make his first start opposite returning starter and preseason ACC first-teamer Jackson Carman, and McFadden will be playing on Sundays in a couple years. OG Will Putnam rounds out the starting five. I like the Ohio connection they have on the left side of the line with Carman and Bockhorst! The second group, however, is very talented but very young and will be a work-in-progress. Blake Vinson is the most experienced of the group, and the Tigers have 3 freshmen in the two-deep!
Personally, I think the one thing I might be the most excited about seeing—other than the freshmen making their debut—is how Dabo and Tony Elliott use the tight end on Saturday night. That is the one element of this offense that has been lacking over the last couple seasons. The tight end hasn’t figured prominently in the Tigers’ passing attack since Jordan Leggett in 2016. It probably would have last year if not for Braden Galloway’s suspension. He is a matchup nightmare, and I can’t wait to see him in action along with sophomores Davis Allen and Jaelyn Lay.
Finally, which backup quarterback will see the field first, and which one will shine? According to Dabo, it has been a very tight race between redshirt freshman Taisun Phommachanh and true frosh DJ Uiagalelei (the name battle alone leaves one’s head spinning). I suspect Taisun will run out there first because of his seniority, but they will probably get about the same number of possessions. The competition will probably be ongoing this season, and it will be fun to see which one performs best on Saturday night!
The Tigers’ defense, led by Brent Venables, is going to be nasty once again! They had a very young, inexperienced front four last season, but they finished 12th in sacks, 1st in three-and-outs and arguably had the best pass defense in the nation. This season, it’s all about the front four. With just about everyone back, except for DE Xavier Thomas, who will be ready to play at some point in the season, the Tigers have added four uber-talented defensive linemen from their No.1 recruiting class. In fact, true freshman DT Bryan Bresee was named a co-starter along with veterans Nyles Pinckney and Jordan McFadden, so that gives you and idea how special he is. With those guys and Tyler Davis in the middle book-ended by Henry, Foster, Mascol and true freshman Myles Murphy, who wowed in camp, I expect to see a pass rush like we saw in 2018 from the Power Rangers. Look out for fellow freshmen Demonte Capehart at DT and Tre Williams at DE as well!
On the back end, the Tigers lost 3 of their top 4 safeties from last season, but they are super talented across the board in the secondary. Nolan Turner and Landen Zanders will make their first start at safety, and returning starter Derion Kendrick should lock down receivers all season. Mario Goodrich and LeAnthony Williams will split time at corner with Kendrick, and look out for true freshman Malcolm Greene, who impressed in camp.
Many will wonder how the Tigers will replace a generational talent like Isaiah Simmons at the nickel/linebacker position, and the eyes will be on Mike Jones, Jr. making his first career start. Jones come a long way, and I believe he is up to the challenge. When Brent Venables is singing your praises, you’ve done something. I believe MLB James Skalski, if he stays healthy, will have an All-American, Butkus Finalist type season. Veteran Baylon Spector is solid at the WLB position as well.
Venables and the Tigers have led the nation in sacks, tackles-for-loss and three-and-outs over the last 7 years, and they have allowed the fewest points over the last 4 years (only 1.5 points behind Alabama for the fewest over the last 6 years). It’s going to be another dominant season for the Clemson D!
Finally, at special teams, the Tigers are in great shape with veteran Will Spiers on punts and BT Potter on kicks. Potter was remarkably accurate and consistent all through August, so hopefully he will carry that into the season. He is also a weapon on kickoffs with a superb touchback rate. From an injury standpoint, the Tigers lost tight end Luke Price for the season, which is a shame because he did a great job blocking last season after transitioning to the position from linebacker. DT Etinosa Reuben has been recovering from a wrist injury and may not play on Saturday. Other than that, the Tigers are in great shape, and we should get Dabo’s final availability list early Saturday after Friday’s COVID test results are in.
Click below for my preseason outlook on the offense and defense!
In the last two meetings, the Tigers have bested the Deacs 52-3 and 62-3, and those were probably better Wake Forest teams and possibly lesser Clemson teams, as hard as that is to wrap your head around. The line on the game is Clemson by 33 points, but I’ve never concerned myself with the odds makers when it comes to Clemson, and I usually do better with my score predictions than Vegas does. Of course, I ought to as much as I study this team. Put simply, Wake is out-manned as much as they ever have been, and I don’t know how they are going to replace all that production they lost on offense. That means three-and-outs and a lot of punts, and if they stick with their fast tempo, it means that defense—which already might not be in the best condition due to the pandemic—will be completely gassed by halftime. Sure, they have a veteran group back from last season, but remember, the Tigers hung 52 on them last season. Basham is an NFL talent, but he won’t be enough to make a difference—especially with a savvy quarterback like Lawrence. And Wake won’t even have the benefit of fans in the stands to energize them when they are gasping for air! I expect the game to be well in hand by halftime, and Trev & Trav will see little of the field in the 2nd half. Dabo will clear his bench, and they will continue to build the lead. A new win streak begins!
The Prowl toward a 6th consecutive ACC Title, 6th consecutive College Football Playoff, 3rd consecutive National Championship Game and 4th National Title begins…..
CLEMSON 55 Wake Forest 6
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