The Opponent: Wake Forest Demon Deacons
When: September 9, 2023 at 11:00 AM on the ACC Network
Where: Allegacy Federal Credit Union Stadium, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Last year: 8-5 (3-5 ACC.) Won Gasparilla Bowl vs. Missouri. Last season got off to a promising start for the Deacs, with a 6-1 record and a top-10 ranking going into a trip to Louisville. They committed eight turnovers against the Cardinals to start a 1-4 stretch to end the regular season, salvaging it a bit with a bowl win. Was that a disappointment? I don’t know, I’m not a Wake Forest fan.
The last time we saw these guys: Part of that 6-1 start, of course, was Wake coming into FirstBank Stadium and handing Vanderbilt its first loss, 45-25. This was the game when Mike Wright lost the starting job by going 8-for-15 for 35 yards and an interception, though he’d later get it back when AJ Swann got hurt — but we all kind of saw his limitations here.
Series record: Vanderbilt leads, 10-7. There was a time when the SEC decided that Kentucky was Tennessee’s Thanksgiving week game and Vanderbilt played Wake to end its season six times between 2007 and 2013. An interesting side note: Vanderbilt is 6-2 against Wake in Winston-Salem.
It still feels like Dave Clawson is underappreciated. Entering his tenth year at Wake Forest, he’s got a 59-53 record and has made seven bowl games in a row, which doesn’t sound all that impressive until you consider that prior to Clawson’s tenure, Wake had made seven bowl games ever and had never made more than three in a row. His predecessor, Jim Grobe, went 77-82 over 13 years and that was considered an impressive run. And prior to Grobe, Wake had had 9 winning seasons in 45 years. (Okay, Vanderbilt had seven winning seasons in the same stretch.)
Much of Wake’s success over the last few years, though, can be chalked up to four-year starting quarterback Sam Hartman. Hartman threw for 77 touchdowns and nearly 8000 yards over the last two years; after the 2022 season, he elected to go to Notre Dame as a graduate transfer. It doesn’t seem like Wake will be having a quarterback competition, though, with last year’s backup Mitch Griffis likely to take over. Griffis went 29-for-41 for 348 yards with five touchdowns last season — most of that came against VMI, when he took over for an injured Hartman. Also gone: Wake’s top receiver, A.T. Perry, who had back-to-back 1000-yard receiving seasons. Wake does return four receivers who caught more than 30 passes last season, but on paper lacks a big-play target like the 6’5” Perry. One player to watch here: Tennessee transfer Walker Merrill, who was a four-star recruit coming out of Brentwood High School. It doesn’t help that Wake will have to replace three starters on the offensive line, too. Dave Clawson certainly knows offense, though, and Wake has averaged over 30 points per game over the last six years — but there might be some kinks to work out early on, and it might work to Vanderbilt’s advantage to see them in their second game.
Where Wake’s offense has consistently been good under Clawson, Wake’s defense has been a persistent problem. Last year, Wake surrendered an average of 28.3 ppg, which isn’t great and also represented their best defensive performance since 2017.
There are players here — defensive lineman Jasheen Davis notched 14 tackles for loss and seven sacks last season — but from best I can tell, Wake has to replace six starters on this side of the ball. Gone is last year’s leading tackler, Ryan Smenda. And while last season’s defense didn’t get completely shredded, it still gave up more than 30 points in each of its last five regular season games. That’s going to be more of a problem early on if the offense isn’t ready to roll.
Kicker Matthew Dennis was solid in his first season as Wake’s placekicker, converting 56-of-57 extra points and 12-of-14 field goals, though he didn’t have a ton of distance with a season-high of 46 yards. Punter Ivan Mora’s 40.8 average ranked 12th in the ACC. And Wake didn’t do much in the return game, either. This unit isn’t terrible, but I wouldn’t call it a strength.
- August 31 vs. Elon
- September 9 vs. Vanderbilt
- September 16 at Old Dominion
- September 23 vs. Georgia Tech
- October 7 at Clemson
- October 14 at Virginia Tech
- October 21 vs. Pittsburgh
- October 28 vs. Florida State
- November 2 at Duke
- November 11 vs. NC State
- November 18 at Notre Dame
- November 25 at Syracuse
On paper, Wake is probably taking a step back in 2023, with a new quarterback and losing (easily) its top receiver, and with a defense that has never really been figured out. The open question, then, is how big of a step back it is: is this a mere retooling where everything gets basically figured out with a couple of hiccups early, but enough of a recovery to go 6-6 or 7-5? Or is a 4-8 season in store?
It’s hard to see the latter happening under Clawson, of course. But trust us — we know a bit about being a school where it’s hard to win, and the falldown after a run of competence might not be something you see coming. We were, after all, pretty damn sure we were going to beat Temple in 2014. Vanderbilt should go into the Wake Forest game at 2-0, and a win over the Deacs would be an early statement for Clark Lea.