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Wake Forest in Bowl Games: An Investigation

Wake Forest is pretty good at the whole winning bowl games thing and Mizzou hasn’t won a bowl since 2014. So how does Wake do it?

Boston College v Wake Forest Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Dave Clawson has been the head coach at Wake Forest since 2014. During that time-span his Demon Deacons have been bowl eligible seven times (counting this year) with a record of 4-2, and the Gasparilla Bowl outcome yet to be decided.

Since 2014, Missouri has been bowl eligible seven times (counting this year) but have a record of 1-3 in postseason games.

So how does Wake do it? And is it something that can derail yet another opportunity for Mizzou to earn some sweet bowl game hardware? Let’s take a look at Wake’s previous six bowl games, break down the SP+ ratings, and see what they like to do to win the day.

2016 Military Bowl - December 27th, 2016

(7-6) Wake Forest 34 - (10-4) Temple 26

Wake Forest SP+ Rankings: 67th overall (114th offense, 32nd defense)

Temple SP+ Rankings: 28th overall (52nd offense, 22nd defense)

Favorite: Temple (-13)

The Temple Owls had a great year but were being coached by interim Ed Foley as Matt Rhule had just taken the Baylor job. Wake Forest entered this matchup having not won a game since October 8th and dealing with the “Wakey Leaks” scandal, where a former Wake Forest assistant (and then-current radio personality) had been sending Wake’s playbook and game script to opponents.

At the end of the 1st half the score was 31-10 in favor of the Demon Deacons. But starting quarterback John Wolford was out with an injury and his backup was much less effective.

Temple mounted a comeback in the second-half but kept settling for field goals until time ran out. Wake posted 368 yards - 125 on the ground, 243 through the air - but gave up 396 to Temple’s less-than-stellar passing game.

2017 Belk Bowl - December 29th, 2017

(7-5) Wake Forest 55 - (7-5) Texas A&M 52

Wake Forest SP+ Rankings: 31st overall (21st offense, 51st defense)

Texas A&M SP+ Rankings: 36th overall (38th offense, 52nd defense)

Favorite: Wake Forest (-2.5)

Another Wake bowl game, another interim head coach to play against as former Aggie head coach Kevin Sumlin had been fired on November 26th.

This one was a back-and-forth shoot-out to the end, with John Wolford throwing for over 400 yards and 4 touchdowns while A&M’s Nick Starkel threw for a Belk Bowl record 499 yards and also 4 touchdowns, three of which went to current Jacksonville Jaguar (and 2nd-round NFL Draft pick) Christian Kirk.

Believe it or not, the fourth-highest scoring game of all time was won when Wake’s defense stopped the Aggies’ final drive on downs, preserving the three-point lead, their second-consecutive bowl win, and the first eight-win season for the Deacons since 2008.

2018 Birmingham Bowl - December 22nd, 2018

(6-6) Wake Forest 37 - (8-5) Memphis 34

Wake Forest SP+ Rankings: 57th overall (48th offense, 64th defense)

Memphis SP+ Rankings: 36th overall (14th offense, 87th defense)

Favorite: Memphis (-4.5)

Wake Forest went down early to Mike Norvell’s offensive-dynamo Memphis Tigers, trailing by 18 in the 1st half. In addition, current Wake quarterback Sam Hartman had been the 1A quarterback option to Jamie Newman’s 1B but had been injured early in the 2nd quarter, forcing Newman to make the comeback complete.

And he did it! Newman accounted for 328 yards through the air, 91 yards on the ground, and 4 total touchdowns as Wake’s sleepy offense outgained one of the best offenses in the nation at that time, 529-378.

Newman’s last drive went 75 yards in 1:15 of game time, running for his final touchdown with 34 seconds left on the clock. Memphis took the ball and marched it down to the Wake 21-yard line but had the game-tying field goal sail right, preserving the Deacon’s third-straight bowl win.

2019 Pinstripe Bowl - December 27th, 2019

(6-6) Michigan State 27 - (8-4) Wake Forest 21

Wake Forest SP+ Rankings: 57th overall (61st offense, 69th defense)

Michigan State SP+ Rankings: 42nd overall (91st offense, 13th defense)

Favorite: Michigan State (-3.5)

Jamie Newman and the funky Wake offense met their match against the no-fun, all-defense granite block of football known as Michigan State in the Pinstripe Bowl. Wake held a 21-20 lead at the end of the 1st half, with Newman throwing for three touchdowns and keeping ahead of a Spartan offense that had come alive against the middling Wake defense.

In the 2nd half, Wake managed to gain 101 total yards and were shutout, despite getting the ball twice off of turnovers in plus territory.

Wake’s defense allowed Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke to throw for 320 yards while the Spartan ground game manage 177 yards on 4.3 yards per carry.

2020 Duke’s Mayo Bowl

(3-3) Wisconsin 42 - (4-4) Wake Forest 28

Wake Forest SP+ Rankings: 82nd (77th offense, 77th defense)

Wisconsin SP+ Rankings: 15th (43rd offense, 4th defense)

Favorite: Wisconsin (-10)

This is a classic example of how Sam Hartman either keeps Wake Forest in a game or totally takes them out of it.

Wisconsin - for all their bluster about offensive linemen and running the ball - eked out a meager 122 yards on the ground against a pliable Wake Forest defense, while blue-chip disappointment quarterback Graham Mertz finished 11-17 for 130 yards through the air.

As for Wake Forest; they outgained Wisconsin 518-266 - throwing for 407 yards and running for 111 - while maintaining a 43% 3rd-down conversion rate to Wisconsin’s 27%, and held a 10% advantage in success rate overall. But Hartman threw four interceptions - giving Wisconsin 32, 3, 4, and 6 yards to go til the end zone - and allowed the Badgers to win a game by 14 points that they had no business winning in the first place.

2021 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - December 31st, 2021

(10-3) Wake Forest 38 - (5-7) Rutgers 10

Wake Forest SP+ Rankings: 39th overall (10th offense, 92nd defense)

Rutgers SP+ Rankings: 88th (109th offense, 46th defense)

Favorite: Wake Forest (-17)

And this is a classic example of how Sam Hartman wins games, especially against overmatched competition.

Granted, the overmatched competition in question wasn’t supposed to be the opponent. The Gator Bowl had selected Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M Aggies as the opponent but the Aggies had to pull out because of a lack of players due to injury, opt-outs, transfers, and a COVID breakout. So 5-7 Rutgers volunteered as tribute and got bushwhacked by a clearly superior Wake Forest squad.

Hartman finished with 304 yards through the air and 3 touchdowns, while the ground game contributed 148 yards and a touchdown. The game was 20-10 at the half and Rutgers had no answer in the 2nd half. Wake’s defense even had a good day against one of the worst offenses in the country, allowing a meager 165 yards through the air and 111 yards on the ground.


Wake Forest is 4-2 in the win/loss column as well as 4-2 against the spread. Outside of the Rutgers substitution, they usually get paired against comparable teams and can hold their own, regardless of quality of opponent. They’ve beaten teams ranked 28th, 36th, 36th, and 88th while losing to teams ranked 42nd and 15th. More importantly, those two losses were to teams whose defenses ranked 13th and 4th overall; conversely, their wins have come against teams fielding defenses that ranked no better than 22nd - and that was a Temple team minus their head coach and defensive coordinator - or 46th if you remove that Temple squad. As a reminder, Missouri’s defense ranks 25th, while ignoring the fact that they’ll be down several starters.

Wake can be beat but they’re going to make you earn it. The best way to beat them is through the air (yikes) and stifling their ground game (hooray!). We’ll see if Mizzou can do either of those tasks on December 23rd.