Three weeks into the disjointed 2020 college football season, North Carolina was a top-10 team while Wake Forest was already being written off after losing its first two games against ACC opponents Clemson and NC State.
When the Tar Heels and Deacons meet Saturday at Kenan Stadium, they’ll do so on virtually equal terms.
Coach Mack Brown’s team is still highly regarded despite ugly losses to struggling Florida State and Virginia that dropped it out of the national rankings. UNC is a 13½-point favorite against its in-state rival.
But the Tar Heels (5-2, 5-2 ACC) don’t have to look very far down the conference standings to see the Deacons catching up with them after four straight victories, including impressive wins against Virginia Tech and Syracuse leading into last week’s open date.
It’s a turnaround that has caught many by surprise.
But not Brown.
“You start looking at what Dave Clawson has done at Wake Forest for a long time, they’re always well-coached,” the UNC Hall of Famer said. “I’ve never thought he gets the credit for the way his teams play.
“They always have really good players and they’re never ranked high in recruiting, so they do a fantastic job in evaluating and developing players. And they always play hard.”
While the Deacons (4-2, 3-2) have gotten better as the season has worn on, Brown’s Tar Heels seem to be stuck in a roller-coaster pattern of alternating between a well-oiled machine one week and a self-destructive time bomb the next.
After bouncing back from a confounding loss at Virginia two weeks ago with a 56-24 dismantling of Duke in the battle for the Victory Bell on Saturday, UNC is now hoping to put two good efforts together in consecutive weeks.
Something it has yet to do this season.
“We’re trying to tell them in life’s lessons,” Brown said, adding that the best teams are the ones that learn to play with intensity week in and week out. “A lot of bankruptcies come right after you have your best year and people get a little relaxed. Why do people not win championships year in and year out? Why did they win one year and the next year, they’re not quite as good? Well, it’s partly because people all want to beat them and they circle them.
“But the other thing is that you don’t do all the little things quite as well right after you’re satisfied, and we can’t be satisfied. We’ve got to coach them harder this week than we did last week and act like they lost the game, very honestly.”
Or maybe Brown and his staff should simply remind their players about what happened the last time these two teams met — a year ago in a rare nonconference matchup between the long-time in-state rivals.
The Tar Heels were riding high after back-to-back upsets of South Carolina and Miami before the Deacons knocked them back by jumping out to a quick three-touchdown lead on the way to a 24-18 victory in Winston-Salem.
This year’s Deacons aren’t as experienced as that 2019 squad. But they do present a tricky matchup for UNC because the things they do well, particularly their ability to run the ball and pressure the quarterback, are areas in which the Tar Heels have struggled.
“They’ve got a lot of guys back that kept us from moving the ball last year,” Brown said. “We’ve got our hands full. I think the guys will understand that this year.”
And unlike UNC, the Deacons don’t beat themselves.
Wake has committed only one turnover all season and quarterback Sam Hartman has yet to be intercepted. On the other side of the ball, its defense has taken the ball away 15 times for a nation’s best plus-14 ratio.
“I think we’re a much better team,” Clawson said after his team’s decisive 38-14 win at Syracuse on Oct. 31. “It’s a team that’s capable of playing in different ways to win. It’s nice to know we don’t have to score 40 points to win like we did the last two years. You can’t cheat against us. We have good balance going on.”
Putting together a game plan to stop the Deacons, Brown said, is only half the battle.
“These aren’t video games. They’re human beings,” the UNC coach said. “What we’ve got to do is work really hard to prepare the best we can to beat Wake Forest and not anything else.
“Really and truly, it’s not about the other team. We look at their tendencies, we know what they do. It’s about us, and we’ve got to play well.”