Both Wake Forest and North Carolina State entered the season with ambitions of dethroning six-time reigning Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson, first by knocking the Tigers from atop the league’s Atlantic Division standings.
The 13th-ranked Demon Deacons and 21st-ranked Wolfpack meet Saturday night with a chance to take a huge step toward that goal.
Wake Forest (8-1, 5-0, No. 12 CFP) leads the division race with its only loss coming to North Carolina. But that loss didn’t count in the league standings because the game was part of a nonconference series arranged by the schools in 2015 because they weren’t playing as often amid the expanded league’s scheduling rotation.
The loss likely knocked the Demon Deacons – and therefore, the ACC – out of the College Football Playoff race. Coach Dave Clawson is hoping his players bounce back quickly knowing that the outcome doesn’t impact whether they can make next month’s league championship game.
“I think when the season started, if you say that you’re going to go into November and you’re undefeated in the ACC, and you still by your play and your preparation can control whether you’re in Charlotte or not, I think everybody in our program would take this,” Clawson said. “So we’re exactly where we want to be.”
A win by the Demon Deacons will put them up at least two games in the loss column on every other league team, meaning they’d only need to win one of their final two – at Clemson and at Boston College – to clinch the Atlantic race.
N.C. State (7-2, 4-1, No. 16 CFP) suffered its only league loss by one against Miami on Oct. 23 but has won two straight league games since. The Wolfpack also cleared a major hurdle in the division race by taking down the Tigers in double overtime in September, and could add the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Demon Deacons, too.
“I think for us since we lost that game to Miami, we’ve been approaching every game as a must-win game,” Doeren said. “So we’ve been kind of in a playoff mode, I guess you’d say, for the last two games. … We have to win this game, the next game and the next game to be in Charlotte, as far as us controlling it.”
Some other things to know about Saturday’s N.C. State-Wake Forest game:
Both quarterbacks are among the nation’s best in a strong year at the position in the league.
Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman is eighth in the Bowl Subdivision in passing (319.2 yards per game) and tied for fifth in touchdown passes (27) with only five interceptions. N.C. State’s Devin Leary is 17th in passing (275.0) and tied for seventh in TD throws (25) with three picks.
Wake Forest receivers A.T. Perry and Jaquarii Roberson have helped Hartman with the ability to find the end zone and make tough catches. Perry is tied for third in FBS with 10 touchdown catches, while Roberson is tied for 11th with eight. The duo have combined for nine 100-yard games this season.
THE KEY MATCHUP
The defensive edge goes to the Wolfpack.
N.C. State is tied for sixth nationally in scoring defense (16.0) and sits at No. 19 in total defense (321.4). That unit has played well in recent wins against Louisville and Florida State despite the unit losing four starters to season-ending injuries, including all-ACC linebacker Payton Wilson.
That unit faces the country’s No. 3 scoring offense (44.7) and sixth-ranked total defense (508.7).
Both teams have reliable kickers to finish drives.
Wake Forest’s Nick Sciba hit a late field goal to beat Louisville in early October and has made 90% of his field goals for his career, which is on pace to tie for a national record. N.C. State’s Christopher Dunn has bounced back from three missed kicks in the Clemson win and has made his last six field goals.
Wake Forest has won eight of nine meetings at home since 2001, a streak that included wins against eventual NFL quarterbacks Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Mike Glennon and Ryan Finley. The Wolfpack’s only win in that stretch came in 2015.
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