Wake Forest’s path to a bowl game became much clearer with last Thursday’s upset win at NC State. The Deacs improved to 5-5, one win away from becoming eligible for their third straight bowl game, something Wake Forest has only done one other time in school history — the Orange Bowl season and its aftermath, from 2006 to 2008.
It’s an impressive accomplishment for the Deacs to get this close to a bowl, given the number of injuries the team has suffered this season, including losing starting quarterback Sam Hartman for the rest of the season just before the State game.
“Every time this season has been on the verge of getting away, our guys step up and find a way,” coach Dave Clawson said. “I’m incredibly proud of them. We didn’t have the lead at all (against State) except for 30 seconds. That is a really good football team we played, an excellent football team. We’re very fortunate, but we just made the plays, and our kids hung in there and scrapped and fought and found a way.”
Now they need to find a way to take the final step to reach the postseason.
There are still two sizeable hurdles standing in Wake’s way in current Coastal Division leader Pitt and one of the two seven-win Coastal teams, Duke.
There’s also not likely to be a safety net for Wake. The Deacs, like Duke in recent years when they’ve been close to the six-win mark, could take advantage of a bowl selection loophole. If there aren’t enough six-win teams to fill all the spots in scheduled bowl games, five-win teams are chosen based on their Academic Progress Rate (APR) — a calculation of how well a team’s athletes have made progress toward degrees over the last several years.
Wake’s most recent APR of 979 (out of a possible 1,000) is well above the FBS average of 964 and is 36th overall. However, of the 35 teams in front of Wake, 22 already have the necessary six wins, and five can’t reach five wins to take a spot from a five-win Wake team. That leaves Minnesota, Maryland and Baylor, who already have five wins, four-win Air Force, Vanderbilt, Illinois and Kansas State, and three-win Nebraska.
It doesn’t seem likely that the good-grades loophole will be needed this year, however. Already, there are enough six-win teams to fill 64 of the 78 bowl slots, and 21 other teams are in the same position as Wake, needing one win in their final two games to reach the six-win plateau. Eight of them — Toledo, Tulane, Baylor, Miami, Texas Tech, USC, Louisiana and BYU — play teams with a losing record this week, and a ninth — South Carolina — plays FCS team Chattanooga.
So Wake’s best bet is to notch its sixth win.
The Deacs likely won’t be favored in either game. Of course, they weren’t favored against NC State either.
Pitt has two running backs who are in the ACC’s top five rushers in Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall.
Ollison has 1,054 rushing yards — second-most in the conference — and 10 rushing touchdowns — which is fourth.
Hall has gained 844 yards, and his 8.8 yards-per-carry average is best among the ACC’s top rushers. He’s found the end zone eight times.
Over Pitt’s three-game winning streak, the Panthers have averaged 410 yards on the ground and are averaging 256.9 yards on the season, second-best in the conference and 10th in the nation. It’s the team’s best run production since the Tony Dorsett-led 1976 national champions.
It’s also a big-play run offense, which should trouble Wake fans that remember the long runs Clemson broke off against the depleted Deacs defense in last month’s blowout in Winston-Salem.
Ollison’s 10 touchdowns have averaged 27.2 yards and include runs of 97 and 69 yards, the former breaking a school record set by Hall last year. Hall’s eight scores have averaged 33.9 yards. His last two scores were 75- and 73-yard runs.
If Wake doesn’t get its sixth win this week, it will have to get it on the road, at Duke. The Blue Devils also have a quick-strike run game. Running back Deon Jackson scored on a 75-yard run on the first play at Miami, and quarterback Daniel Jones had two runs over 60 yards last week.
So the road ahead is rough, but no rougher than what the team has already traveled.
“We’ve got a lot of football left,” Clawson said, “and we’ve got a lot of goals left for us to accomplish. We’ve got two tough opponents coming up.”