Death Valley awaits title-minded Deacons

Wake Forest can clinch the Atlantic Division with a win Saturday at Clemson or the following week at BC

Tight end Brandon Chapman and the Demon Deacons can clinch the ACC Atlantic Division title with a win Saturday over Clemson. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

The party began when Wake Forest’s student section emptied onto the field after Saturday’s 45-42 win against NC State and was still going strong more than 10 minutes later when the Truist Field PA announcer interrupted DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” to tell members of the team it was time to head to the locker room.

It was a celebration worthy of a championship, even though there’s still work left to be done before any trophies are handed out.


The 13th-ranked Deacons still need to win at least one of their final two games, Saturday at perennial ACC power Clemson or the following week at Boston College, to clinch the Atlantic Division and a spot in next month’s conference championship game.

But thanks to their hard-fought victory against the Wolfpack, which improved them to 6-0 in the ACC (9-1 overall), they continue to control their destiny on the road to the title.

“Every ACC game we play, in my mind, is a championship game,” Wake coach Dave Clawson said after the emotional Senior Night victory in which quarterback Sam Hartman passed for three touchdowns and running back Justice Ellison scored three times.

“We knew that to win the Atlantic, this was a really critical game. We were in first and they were second in the standings and if we didn’t win we’d need help. (Now) I view next week as a championship game. We have a chance to clinch. Clemson is still in the running, so there’s still three teams that can win the Atlantic. And we’re one of them.”

While Clawson’s Deacons are clearly in the driver’s seat for the division title, there is still the possibility of a three-way tie at the top of the division should they not take care of their business and lose the final two games.

According to the ACC’s tie-breaking criteria, Wake would be the odd team out in a three-team logjam at 6-2 because both of its losses will have come to divisional opponents. State (7-3, 4-2) would then earn the title based on its head-to-head win against Clemson.

The only way the Tigers (7-3, 5-2) can earn their seventh straight trip to the ACC title game is for the Deacons to lose out and the Wolfpack drop one of its two remaining games.

All those scenarios become moot, of course, with one more Deacons victory — a goal senior safety Traveon Redd said is his team’s only focus.

“We’re going to keep it simple,” Redd said. “We’re not going to try to get into all the big things. It’s a one-game season. Our main goal is to beat Clemson.”

First, the Deacons will have to come down from the high of their win against State and the euphoria that followed.

How do they plan to do that?

By doing exactly what they did to overcome the disappointment of the previous week’s loss in a potentially disheartening nonconference game against UNC.

“We took that loss pretty hard,” redshirt senior receiver Donald Stewart said. “We came in, watched the film, made adjustments and after the 24-hour rule, we were moving on the next week. We knew we had a big opponent coming in, we knew what was at stake and we knew we had to have a great week of practice.”

The Deacons will likely need an even better week this time around.

Even though Clemson hasn’t been its usual dominant self this season, especially on offense, coach Dabo Swinney’s team remains a formidable obstacle standing in their way — especially in Death Valley.

Wake has lost 12 straight to the Tigers, including the past three by a combined score of 152-19. Its most recent victory in the series came in 2008, a 12-7 win that contributed to the firing of then-coach Tommy Bowden four days later.

Complicating matters for the Deacons is an injury situation that got even worse in the win against State.

Already missing starting cornerbacks Caelen Carson and Gavin Holmes, Wake lost top receiver Jaquarii Roberson during the game. Linebacker Ryan Smenda Jr. will also be forced to miss the first half at Clemson after being ejected for targeting.

It’s a situation Clawson said concerns him, although he added that he’s always concerned.

“It’s Week 11 of the college football season,” he said. “There aren’t too many teams right now that are healthy.”

Those bumps and bruises don’t tend to hurt quite as much when there’s a championship at stake.

“It’s fun to play in a game like this,” Clawson said. “It’s even more fun to win them.”