Early measuring stick for Wake with visit from No. 1 Clemson

The Demon Deacons will host the nation’s top-ranked team for just the second time

Clemson running back Travis Etienne had 158 yards from scrimmage in the Tigers’ 52-3 rout of the Demon Deacons last season in Death Valley, but Wake Forest is hoping it can stun the nation’s No. 1 team when the teams open their season Saturday in Winston-Salem. (Richard Shiro / AP Photo)

The ACC didn’t do Wake Forest any favors when it reshuffled its 2020 football schedule to the current “10-plus-1” format.

Instead of easing into the season with nonconference games against Old Dominion, Appalachian State and Villanova as originally planned, coach Dave Clawson’s Deacons are being thrown right into the fire with tests against Clemson and Notre Dame in two of its first three games.

Not only do the first two games match Wake up against the teams picked to finish 1-2 in the ACC’s preseason poll, but they’ll both be played without the benefit of a home-field advantage since fans will not be allowed into Truist Field because of North Carolina’s continuing coronavirus restrictions.

“They’re No. 1 in the country and that’s kind of a big thing,” All-ACC defensive end Carlos “Boogie” Basham said Tuesday in a video conference with the media. “But we’re just looking at the fact that they’re just another team, pointing out their weaknesses and things we can showcase — picking out things we know we can do better and capitalizing on (them).”

As optimistic as Basham and his teammates are about rising to the challenge of playing such an elite opponent right out of the gate, history isn’t on the Deacons’ side.

They’ve been outscored by a margin of 115-6 over their past two meetings with their Atlantic Division rival, including a 52-3 thrashing a year ago.

If that wasn’t enough of an obstacle to overcome, Wake’s top playmaker Sage Surratt — who was well on his way toward leading the ACC in receiving last season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury against Virginia Tech on Nov. 12 — opted out of the season.

Despite that loss and the unexpected departure of quarterback Jamie Newman, who went to Georgia as a graduate transfer before opting out himself, the Deacons are anything but devoid of offensive talent.

Junior quarterback Sam Hartman beat Newman out for the starting job in 2018 and set school passing records for true freshmen before going down with an injury. And when called upon in a relief role last season, he performed equally as well — including a 308-yard effort in leading a 22-20 victory against Florida State.

“He’s a totally different player than two years ago in terms of his weight, strength, athleticism, confidence and command of the offense,” Clawson said of Hartman. “I think the fact that he lost the starting job and then has it again has made him appreciate it more. He understands the courage it takes to play quarterback in this league when elite pass rushers come at you. I feel really good about where we are at that position.”

Although the Deacons’ receiving corps is young and mostly untested, running back Kenneth Walker, who showed his breakaway capability with a 92-yard touchdown run against Utah State last season, will help take some of the pressure off Hartman and the passing game.

Defensively, Basham is the All-American leader of a unit that has been Wake’s Achilles’ heel in recent years.

Especially against the Tigers.

The Deacons have had little success at stopping coach Dabo Swinney’s team in its back-to-back lopsided losses in 2018‑19. And with Heisman Trophy candidate Trevor Lawrence and two-time ACC Player of the Year running back Travis Etienne both back, the task won’t get any easier come Saturday.

“We haven’t played anywhere near our capability the past two years,” senior defensive back and newly named co-captain Luke Masterson said. “That’s encouraging. If we play up to our capability, it will be fun to see what happens.”

Adding to the electricity of an opening week matchup against a national championship contender is the fact that ESPN’s College GameDay will be making its first trip to Winston-Salem for the occasion.

If nothing else, there’s excitement in the air heading into a season Wake’s coaches and players weren’t always sure would take place.

“In the beginning, there was a lot of uncertainty with different things going on,” Basham said. “At one point I didn’t think it was going to happen. But the staff, people at Wake have done a great job of keeping everybody safe, isolating the football team. As the time went on, hope got better and better. So now it’s game week, and we’re ready for it.”