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Clemson’s Biggest Test Left

By Dave Holcomb
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Wake Forest will have to be perfect, and follow an exact formula to give Clemson that true last remaining test.

For the Clemson haters in the room, this Saturday’s matchup for the Tigers is it.

Unless something unforeseen happens such as a loss for Clemson at rival South Carolina on the final weekend of the regular season, Wake Forest presents the best chance of handing the Tigers a loss before the College Football Playoff.

Yes, that’s despite the 19-point defeat to Virginia Tech last week for Wake Forest. This also includes the ACC Championship Game. Whichever team wins the Coastal will have at least three losses and won’t be ranked. At least Wake Forest was ranked in the first College Football Playoff poll last Tuesday.

More than likely, Wake Forest won’t give Clemson much trouble. The Tigers appear poised to run through the ACC undefeated for the second straight year and enter the College Football Playoff on a 28-game winning streak. After all, they are beating conference opponents by an average of nearly 34 points per game.

Wake Forest will have to be perfect, and follow an exact formula to give Clemson that true last remaining test.

Most of the areas in which the Demon Deacons succeed, the Tigers are even better. Wake Forest is second in the ACC in points and yards with 35.7 and 487.3 per game, respectively, but Clemson is first with 45.3 points and 545.8 yards per contest. Wake Forest is fifth in the conference in scoring defense while Clemson is first in that area as well.

The Demon Deacons lead the ACC with the fewest giveaways per game, as they’ve had just nine possessions end in a turnover this season, but Clemson leads the conference with 22 takeaways. Furthermore, Wake Forest is first in offensive third-down conversions with a 49.4 percent success rate. However, Clemson’s defense is the top third-down unit in the ACC, allowing opponents to convert only about 29 percent of the time on third down.

Wake Forest has the offense to keep up with Clemson, but to ultimately win, they’ll need an extra possession and key third-down pickups to extend drives. The Demon Deacons must win in those two areas of strength for both teams in order to have a realistic chance.

The red zone will be key too. Wake Forest is third in red-zone scoring percentage in the ACC, but in red-zone touchdown efficiency, the Demon Deacons drop to eighth. They’ve only scored touchdowns on about 56.5 percent of their red-zone possessions this season.

Clemson’s red-zone defense is outstanding. The Tigers allow their opponents to score just 70 percent of the time they reach inside the 20-yard line, which is first in the ACC and 10th-best in the country. Opponents have also only scored touchdowns on 40 percent of their red-zone possessions against Clemson, which is No. 6 in the nation.

Field goals won’t beat Clemson. In their last two ACC losses, the Tigers gave up an average of 35 points per game while their offense averaged 33 points.

It’s been five years since an ACC opponent held Clemson under 20 points in a game. During that stretch, the Tigers failed to reach the 30-point plateau just seven times in conference play.

Wake Forest is likely going to have to outscore Clemson in order to win, and while the Demon Deacons, again, have the offense to do that, they must convert red-zone trips into touchdowns.

Another factor in Wake Forest’s winning formula this Saturday is penalties -- or lack thereof. The Demon Deacons commit about four penalties per game, which is the second-fewest in the country. Clemson is middle of the road in the ACC in both penalties and opponent’s penalties per game.

Few penalties, success in the red zone, converting third downs and winning the turnover margin is what Wake Forest must do to give Clemson its toughest remaining test, and the Demon Deacons will have to do it without one of their best players.

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson announced Tuesday that wide receiver Sage Surratt will require season-ending surgery from an injury he suffered last Saturday. He left early against Virginia Tech, which helped result in Wake Forest’s worst offensive output -- in points and yards -- of the season.

Surratt is the team’s leading receiver and one of the most dynamic wideouts in the ACC. He will end 2019 with 66 catches, 1,001 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns with a 15.17 yards per reception average.

Replacing him will be extremely difficult and makes Wake Forest beating Clemson a lot harder. But it’s all the more reason the Demon Deacons need to be efficient.

Outscoring Clemson without your best offensive weapon will require just about everything going right. But even if it’s not a perfect outing, on paper, Wake Forest still presents the greatest challenge to Clemson until the bowl season.