“They tell you that chance is too slim
The world is too big
But you say how come? “
In July of 2021, the preseason ACC media poll had Wake Forest 5th in the Atlantic, in front of only Louisville (by 472-462 points) and Syracuse. It was hardly a controversial take; Clemson is still Clemson, and NC State had by far the most pieces on paper to take a run at the crown. In the COVID ravaged 2020 campaign, the Deacs finished 4-5 (though admittedly, two of those losses were single possessions, and the Deacs did topple #19 Virginia Tech), and even worse, they lost running back workhorse Kenneth Walker III to the transfer portal and Donavon Greene and starting RT Je’Vionte’ Nash to freak injuries in the offseason. How the hell would LOWF rebound from something like that? Was Dave Clawson out of his mind making the season mantra “Good To Great”? I know the schedule is pretty favorable, but really?
“I’m ready to light a new fire
Raise a new flag
To cross a new sea”
It was Week 3 that I really started to raise an eyebrow and wonder if Coach Clawson was doing more than blow smoke. The Deacs absolutely obliterated Florida State, and sure they were 0-2 at the time including a home loss to Jacksonville State on a Hail Mary (sort of; it was the worst-defended desperation play I’ve ever seen), but they also had been a last second field goal away from taking top 10 Notre Dame into overtime. 0-2 wherein your losses are by a combined 6 points doesn’t mean much. But the Deacs decided they didn’t care and took the Seminoles for a walk, getting to 3-0 with a 35-14 drubbing that left folks in Tallahassee with existential questions.
“And if I’m ever the one in your way
Then put your head down
And run right through me”
The next three games were a lot more interesting, especially on paper. But the road game against Virginia proved to be nothing to sweat, and it wasn’t until the home game against Louisville that the team was truly tested. The then #24 Deacs started the 4th quarter with a 10 point lead, and it was only thanks to the sure foot of Nick Sciba that the Deacs remained faultless. Louisville took a shot at Wake, and came close, but the Demon Deacons would not be exorcised, and remained still atop the ACC Atlantic mountain. And if Louisville gave Wake all they could handle, the Syracuse Orange had them down for a nine count, Sam Hartman lofting an absolute prayer to A.T. Perry for an OT win in the Carrier Dome after the Wake Forest defense gave up an infuriatingly easy game-tying drive with only 2:17 left for the Orange to go 94 yards. Still, Wake Forest was 6-0, bowl eligible before Alabama for the first time in...if not ever, certainly an extremely long time. Another team had taken a shot at the kings, and unfortunately for them, they had missed. Suddenly, the Army Black Knights found themselves with probably one of the biggest opportunities for their school in decades: to topple a 6-0 ranked team in their home stadium, where they’d won 12 straight games. What followed was one of the most insane college football games that almost no one saw, a record-breaking day for both schools that saw neither defense being able to do much, save for two forced turnovers for the Deacs, including a truly incredible pick 6 from Traveon Redd on a fake field goal attempt that arguably was the tipping point in the game for Wake Forest.
“So why keep settlin’ for so much less?
Don’t take what’s given
Just demand what’s next”
It probably could be argued that Wake Forest being outside of the top 10 ahead of their matchup with Duke was something of a slap in the face. After all, Kentucky saw more of a bump in its ranking off a literal bye week than Wake Forest did after hanging 70 on an Army defense that previously had only given up half that on its worst day to a Western Kentucky team that hung 31 on Michigan State in East Lansing. Still, all Wake Forest could worry about was what was in front of them: the mother of all trap games at home against a pretty woeful Duke squad. The Demon Deacons clearly weren’t going to be caught napping, as Sam Hartman gashed the Duke defense so badly that, on his second rushing touchdown of the day, the electric QB could do nothing other than give an almost Jordan-esque shrug in the endzone, and the defense answered at least some of the fair criticisms leveled their way, giving up only a single touchdown when starters on both sides had long since gone to their respective corners.
“We’re looking for an open door
Some way we didn’t see before
Some way to get out of here
A plot twist that we didn’t see coming”
Granted, the upcoming stretch for the Deacs is quite possibly the most brutal. This coming Saturday against a similarly explosive (but also fairly porous) UNC squad in Chapel Hill, in a game that somehow manages to be a non-conference outing (I know the story behind how and why; it’s still weird). This UNC squad just gave #11 Notre Dame almost all they could handle, but they also lost to the FSU team the Deacs annihilated, Virginia Tech in their season opener, and the Tar Heels got utterly lambasted by a Georgia Tech squad that, aside from @UNC, has only won against Duke and Kennesaw State. I’m taking nothing for granted, and goodness knows UNC will come out with both guns blazing, but there are two keys to this matchup in my estimation that at least slightly favor Wake Forest. For one, no one has shut down the Wake Forest offense, while UNC was only able to hang 10 points on Virginia Tech. For another, in terms of turnover margin, Wake Forest has recovered more fumbles than UNC has had picks, and when you add in Wake Forest’s team interceptions, they’ve gotten 6 more defensive takeaways total than UNC has. When you’re looking at a battle of two high-powered offenses, turnover margin could easily make the difference, and there’s literally no question that Wake Forest is more ball-hawkish; the Deacs literally have yet to go through any game without forcing at least one turnover, and they forced a truly insane six turnovers against FSU. Sam Howell has thrown 7 picks, and Sam Hartman has not only thrown less than half that at 3, he also has 22 touchdowns to Howell’s still impressive 19.
After that is the last home game of the season for the Deacs, and win or lose against UNC on Saturday, the battle against NC State, if won by Wake Forest would (unless I’m missing some math here) , all but guarantee Wake Forest a berth in the ACC Championship, and it would guarantee a Wake spot if Clemson or NC State drop any games between now and then (or if they drop any after). Clemson still has @Louisville in conference, and NC State has @FSU, and Syracuse and UNC at home in addition to the head to head matchups. Wake Forest, on the other hand, only has @Boston College, a team that has yet to taste victory in conference after starting 4-0.
“We’re looking for an open door
Some way we didn’t see before
And when we get out of here we’ll
Take off and never stop running”
I said this is the greatest Wake Forest football team ever, and I meant it. Even if the improbable happens, and they lose out on a shot at the ACC crown (something that I don’t think will happen given that those chasing us need to have the exact right pieces fall into place in addition to winning head to head), they’re doing something no Wake team has ever done. They’ve gotten themselves into “control your own destiny” territory by going blow for blow with every team they’ve come across. They’re not shortening games and hoping to win by squeaking a win out at the end, they’re fearlessly throwing haymaker after haymaker and have yet to be toppled. I was there for the 2006 team; I was a student for crying out loud. I’m telling y’all, that ACC crown felt like some lucky breaks. If we even win the division this year, it won’t be because the team got lucky, it’ll be because they took it.
There are a lot of ifs left in the season. But we’re already in uncharted waters, so the only question now is just how far this team is going to run. The only question now is not whether the door is open, it’s how hard they’ve kicked it down.
On to the next. Go Deacs. Oh, and while I’m at it, GTHC.