Wake Forest’s grip on the ACC Atlantic Division football championship isn’t as firm as it once was. But even after Saturday’s 48-27 loss at Clemson, the title and a trip to the conference championship game in Charlotte are still within the Deacons’ grasp.
All they have to do is take care of business in this week’s regular season finale at Boston College.
“They’re all big at this point in the year when you’re playing for a conference championship, but clearly that’s a one-and-done,” Wake coach Dave Clawson said of the upcoming showdown with the Eagles. “If you win it, you advance. If you don’t, get ready for a bowl game.
“We’ve got to have a great week of preparation and work hard. Playing on the road is always a challenge.”
It has been recently for Clawson’s 21st-ranked Deacons.
After starting the season with eight straight wins and rising to a program-best No. 9 in the national polls, they’ve lost two of the past three games. Both losses were played away from Winston-Salem.
Because one of those setbacks was designated as a nonconference matchup — at North Carolina on Nov. 6 — Wake continues to control its destiny in the division. But the margin for error it enjoyed before heading to Death Valley is gone.
The Deacons (9-2, 6-1 ACC) would lose a tiebreaker to NC State in a three-way logjam for the Atlantic title with the Wolfpack (8-3, 5-2) and Clemson. The six-time defending league champion Tigers (8-3, 6-2) would advance to the title game against Coastal winner Pittsburgh in the event of a two-way deadlock with the Deacons.
The only way Wake can secure its second division crown and a shot at its first ACC championship since 2006 is by beating BC on Saturday.
While the pressure is squarely on Wake against a 6-5 Eagles team that has played better since the return of starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec, Deacons quarterback Sam Hartman is confident in his team’s ability to handle the situation.
It helps that they’ve won their last three trips to Chestnut Hill dating back to 2015, including a 27-24 victory two seasons ago.
“If you tell me (at the start of the season) that we’re 9-2 going into Boston College playing for an ACC championship, I can’t tell you that I wouldn’t be excited or fired up,” Hartman said. “So that’s got to be the mentality.”
As much as it “stings and burns” to lose to Clemson, the fourth-year sophomore said he and his teammates should be able to get the disappointment out of their system quickly.
“You’d love to have got this one,” he said. “But it’s one week, 1-0 next week.”
The key to doing that is avoiding turnovers, something the Deacons haven’t been able to do lately.
They committed only seven in their first eight games combined, three fumbles and four interceptions. In the three games since, they’ve given the ball up eight times. That includes two costly third quarter fumbles at Clemson that helped turn a one-possession game into another lopsided Tigers victory.
Wake has been outscored 200‑46 over its past four meetings with its Atlantic Division nemesis.
“Turnovers get you beat,” said Deacons receiver Jaquarii Roberson, who returned from an injury to catch a team-leading six passes for 93 yards on Saturday.
So does spending most of the game playing behind the chains, a problem Wake created for itself with a chronic lack of first down productivity against Clemson.
“It’s a good learning lesson,” Hartman said. “But again, you’d love to not be learning that this late in the season.”
One thing that’s almost inevitable in late November is injuries, and the Deacons are dealing with their share.
They played Saturday’s game without starting center Michael Jurgens, the ACC’s Offensive Lineman of the Week in the win against NC State on Nov. 13, top-two rushers Christian Beal-Smith and Justice Ellison, and cornerback Caelen Carson.
Clawson is optimistic Jurgens will be back for BC, an addition that would bolster an offensive line that allowed seven sacks against Clemson. As for the others, he said his Deacons have no choice other than to do the best they can with what they have available.
“We have a championship game next week up at BC,” Clawson said. “So we’ve got to correct a lot of mistakes and hopefully get our guys to bounce back.”