The ninth-ranked Clemson Tigers set out to secure the ACC's Atlantic Division title and subsequent spot in the ACC Championship Game, when they play host to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in the key conference clash in Death Valley this weekend.
Dabo Swinney's Tigers have had a very successful campaign to this point. The team opened the season with eight straight victories and raced to a 5-0 mark in the ACC before suffering its first loss of the season, a 31-17 setback at Georgia Tech two weeks ago. Clemson was idle this past week and has had two weeks to prepare for what could be a division-clinching contest.
Jim Grobe's Demon Deacons still control their own destiny and are 4-2 in the Atlantic Division, a game behind the Tigers. Wake has been seeking bowl eligibility for a couple of weeks now, but has failed in its bid for a sixth victory on the season, instead dropping back-to-back decisions to North Carolina (49-24) and most recently, Notre Dame (24-17).
Grobe addressed the recent skid.
"We're disappointed, but not down. I think we know that we still have a lot of good things to play for. I think we're very disappointed in the opportunity that we lost Saturday night (against Notre Dame). We had a great chance to beat a really good football team and didn't get it done. So we're not great mentally from the standpoint of being happy about the way that we played the past couple weeks, but at the same time, we know that we can play better and we know we have to this week."
Clemson holds a huge advantage in the all-time series with Wake Forest. The Tigers are now 58-17-1, having won the last two meetings and seven of the last 10 overall.
There is nothing flashy about how Wake Forest conducts its business on the offensive side of the ball. The team is averaging 28.3 ppg this year, fueled by a passing attack that is generating 265.8 yards per game.
Quarterback Tanner Price has played well for the most part, connecting on 61.9 percent of his throws, for 2,154 yards, with 15 TDs against six INTs.
It has helped that veteran wideout Chris Givens has emerged as one of the ACC's best receivers. The senior has hauled in 58 passes this year for 985 yards and eight TDs. He needs just 69 more yards to pass Ricky Proehl (1,053 in 1989) for the school's single-season record.
Coach Swinney is aware of the challenge that Wake's offense presents.
"They do a great job with formations. They know how to create advantages. We have to try to make them one-dimensional. We have to stop the run and play well in space. They're going to get their guys with as much space as possible."
The ground game is not as productive on the year, but both Josh Harris (61.7 ypg, three TDs) and Brandon Pendergrass (46.3 ypg, five TDs) have the ability to move the chains if need be.
The Demon Deacons have had their ups and downs on the defensive side of the ball this year, as they are allowing 27.9 ppg. A lack of big play has certainly been problematic, with Wake amassing just 10 sacks and 13 takeaways in the first nine games.
Senior safety Cyhl Quarles has been the team's most active defender, leading the way with 71 tackles and one fumble recovery. Fellow safety Josh Bush (37 tackles) has also played well in the secondary and is responsible for five INTs thus far.
The Tigers haven't had many problems moving the football up and down the field in 2011. The team is averaging a robust 473.2 yards per game, ripping off huge chunks of real estate on the ground (169.6 ypg) and through the air (303.7 ypg).
It all starts with sophomore QB Tahj Boyd. The young gunslinger is playing at an All-American level, completing 61.3 percent of his passes, for 2,674 yards, with 25 TDs. It helps to have a future All-American on the outside in Sammy Watkins. Perhaps the best freshman in the entire nation, Watkins has already hauled in 63 balls, for 972 yards and 10 TDs.
Tailback Andre Ellington keeps defenses honest with his 93.1 yards rushing per game.
The Clemson defense hasn't been as productive as the offense. The unit has been gashed at times, especially by opponents' ground games at 193.1 yards per game on almost five yards per carry (4.8).
Still, the Tigers possess some serious talent, starting with defensive end Andre Branch. The 6-5, 260-pound senior ranks second on the team in tackles (57), but leads the way in TFLs (12.5) and sacks (8.5).