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Better Know Your Bowl Opponent: Wake Forest

For the first time ever the Tigers and Demon Deacons will face each other on the gridiron. are these guys?

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Wake Forest Demon Deacons v Rutgers Scarlet Knights Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

It’s always tough to play football when you’re the smart-kid school of the conference and, like Stanford and Vanderbilt, Wake Forest is acutely aware of the limitations that brings, especially in a conference that tends to feature teams that aren’t as vigilant about that sort of thing.

However, unlike Stanford and Vanderbilt, Wake Forest gets the added benefit of being one of the smallest student bodies in the country. Whearas Stanford boasts an enrollment of 16,937 students (7,645 of them undergrad) and Vanderbilt sits at a total enrollment of 12,309 students (7,057 undergrad), Wake Forest has a total enrollment of 8,950, or just barely above the undergraduate counts of their fellow private smart-kid schools.

The school cites their 20% acceptance rank as a badge of pride, with students needed to exceed a 33 on the ACT or 1500 on the SAT to even have a hope of studying in Winston-Salem.

Which makes it tougher for athletes to qualify, yeah? The number of athletes who are good enough to play at the FBS level who also have the test scores to enter leaves Wake Forest coaches with a fairly small pool of talent to pull from. And while there are exceptions made in specific cases, the overwhelming problem is fielding a team that can consistently compete in an era where transfers are rampant and NIL is en vogue.

A smaller student body means fewer people to pull from for athletic investment. Higher academic standards means landing an impact transfer can be tough. It can be done, but it certainly ain’t easy.

Here’s what Wake Forest’s SP+ performance looks like since 2005:

Wake Forest’s Historical SP Performance

Despite all of the obvious limitations, Wake Forest has held its own at the FBS level, twice playing in the ACC Championship game. It takes a good program builder who can MacGyver his way through the landmines and do more with less, while also being tactically sound and advanced in both offensive and defensive schemes. And, boy, have they absolutely found that guy.

Coaching Staff

Wake Forest v Louisville Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Dave Clawson - 9th Year - 58-53 (29-42)

Dave Clawson might be the best program builder in the country. Sure, Nick Saban straightened out multiple booster rat-kings at LSU and Alabama to win National Championships, but Clawson builds his programs on Heisman-level difficulty. He’s a bit of a mushroom in that he thrives in corners of college football that are dark and overlooked, but his ability to strip a program down to the studs and build it back up to championship-levels of competitiveness is proven and peerless. In fact, he’s such a good program builder that he’s rarely stayed past the four-year build cycle, leaving Fordham for Richmond in five years, Richmond for Tennessee in four years, and Bowling Green for Wake Forest in five years. Detonate it, build it, succeed, move on. The fact that we’ve had nine years of Clawson at Wake is a.) unheard of, but b.) an endorsement for his abilities as a good program manager as well. I highly doubt he’d succeed in the minds of fans of a football-centric school in the SEC or B1G since his process requires the patience that most fanbases don’t have, but there’s no question in my mind that Clawson could take over any program and get them to championship levels of contention with enough time.

Coach Clawson’s Resume

Assistant Staff

Warren Ruggiero - Offensive Coordinator: Warren Ruggiero has been with Clawson since Bowling Green and 2009 and, with his boss, helped design the “slow-mesh” read option. Parker covered it well in this piece but the concept is for the quarterback and running back to hold on to the ball together, walking towards the line of scrimmage until the defense commits to the running back, quarterback, or the pass. It’s an awkward tactic that has done wonders for an offense that is routinely outgunned in the talent department. To whit, the Deacon’s offense is 6th in the country right now, thanks to a veteran quarterback running a funky system to success. Ruggiero and Clawson deserve all the credit in the world for being much smarter than the opposing defenses and capitalizing on sound tactics.

Brad Lambert - Defensive Coordinator: The longtime Charlotte head coach took over a defense that ranked 95th and has seen it plummet even further to 105th. Wake has fielded great defenses before - Clawson’s best defense ranked 32nd in 2016 - but it’s been a slow decline in quality since 2016 and one that multiple DC’s have yet to solve. Lambert should have time to turn it around - he’s in his first year, after all - but this season will undoubtedly be a frustrating mark on his storied career.

Wayne Lineburg - Special Teams Coordinator

John Hunter - Running Back

Kevin Higgins - Wide Receiver

Nick Tabacca - Offensive Line

Dave Cohen - Defensive Line

Glenn Spencer - Linebackers

Paul Williams - Cornerbacks

James Adams - Safeties


As previously stated, the Deac’s offense ranks sixth in the country because they are efficient as hell. With the slow-mesh read option and a fifth-year quarterback, Wake’s offense is the ultimate “take what the defense gives you” offense, operating more like an academy option offense than anything else you see at the P5 level. When it works, it works, as they can turn any possession into a 13-14 plays slog-fest that milks the clock and finishes with points. Even if a defense connects on a few TFLs and knocks them off rhythm, Wake is better in passing downs situations than they are on standard downs! They might not be the most heralded group of guys but this Wake Forest offense is tremendous.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 North Carolina at Wake Forest Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Quarterback - Sam Hartman - Redshirt Senior

Sam Hartman Stats

Sam Hartman has been in the news recently for the bizarre story of how he had a rib removed from his body and currently has it stored in his freezer so he can turn it into a necklace. Obvious injury issues (and mental issues?) aside, Hartman has been one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in Winston-Salem, essentially being the starter since 2018. He’s a perfect fit for the “Clawfense” and has perfected it over five years. Whether he transfers elsewhere to take his COVID bonus year or not, he is a dangerous passer and runner with smart coordinators. A massive danger, to be sure.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Wake Forest at Duke Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Running Back - Justice Ellison - Sophomore

Ellison and Christian Turner are the two-headed rushing attack that Wake relies on, along with Sam Hartman. Turner is the better outside runner (5.6 average YPC on outside runs) and has more touchdowns (7, compared to Ellison’s 5) but Ellison has higher usage, more carries, more yardage, better YPC, and is the grinder for running inside the tackles (4.3 average YPC on inside runs). Neither one are the best at avoiding contact or running through it but Missouri should expect to get a heavy dosage of both.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 North Carolina at Wake Forest Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Wide Receiver - A.T. Perry - Redshirt Junior

Perry is the first (and second) look in the Wake passing game, earning 70 catches on 111 targets for 980 yards. He has nearly double the targets and 36 more catches than the second-leading receiver Taylor Morin and has been a Biletnikoff semifinalist over multiple years. The Wake passing game is very much like the Army or Navy passing game: huge, surprise yardage after lulling you to sleep with the running game. Wake’s receivers are all incredibly similar in size and skillset and benefit significantly from the system. Limiting Perry won’t be the end of the passing game but it is certainly a good place to start.


For as good as the Wake offense is, the defense is equally as bad. The run defense is ok, I guess, but the passing defense is a complete sieve. Given how much Eli Drinkwitz enjoys running the ball - and the perceived limitations of Brady Cook without a Dom Lovett to throw to - we’ll either see a blossoming of the Tiger passing game that will give us tremendous hope for the offseason...or the usual run-run-run-pass tactics that keep games close and don’t allow for pulling away. Other than Lovett, if this offense has everyone ready to go they should, in theory, be much more capable of moving the ball.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL OCT 29 Wake Forest at Louisville Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensive End - Jasheen Davis - Sophomore

For all of its woes Davis is this defense’s lone bright spot, and he’s only a sophomore! Of his 34 tackles a whopping 14.5 have been TFLs, and he leads the team by a comfortable margin in sacks (7) and quarterback pressures (29). There’s more to any defense than just one guy but if Armand Membou and Javon Foster can keep this guy as a non-factor the Tiger offense will have a much easier day.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Wake Forest at Vanderbilt Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Linebacker - Ryan Smenda, Jr. - Senior

Smenda is your prototypical inside linebacker; no pass rushes, not a lot of TFLs, just the ability to find the ball and hit that dude super hard. He is second on this defense in total snaps played and leads the team with 92 tackles, 36 more than the next-highest tackler on the team. Cody Schrader will become intimately familiar with Mr. Smenda unless the line can find a way to wash him out of the play.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Clemson at Wake Forest Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Safety - Chelen Garnes - Junior

Garnes is more of a free safety that plays the pass and picks up receivers who have found gaps in the coverage. But he’s also been active enough to log 51 tackles, two TFLs, and two run stuffs to complement the excellent pass defense he provides. The secondary isn’t all that impressive but Garnes has active and consistent enough to warrant some concern.


Missouri’s game against Arkansas was intriguing in the lead up due to the strength-on strength/weak-on-weak nature of the matchups and, of course, it delivered on the entertainment value. This matchup is more of the same; both teams are super close in SP+ but go about it in very different ways, with Missouri being a bad offense with a great defense and Wake being an elite offense with a historically bad defense. The factors that decide this game are numerous - with motivation being the obvious one - but how each coach manages the game and how each unit reacts to facing its equal will be some of the most important factors.