It’s mid-September and North Carolina’s only College Football Playoff contender is Wake Forest. That may not last very long, as the Demon Deacons travel to Indiana on Saturday, which once was close to a gimme but is no longer, although the same thing could be said of Wake Forest. For the moment, though, the Deacons remain North Carolina’s only undefeated team.
This has been a long time coming for Dave Clawson, who started from nothing and endured two difficult seasons building toward this, letting his offensive line and defense struggle as they learned on the job. And while there’s a difficult road ahead this season, especially with quarterback Kendall Hinton – the versatile Southern Durham product – out for the next two or three games, there’s absolutely no reason why the Deacons can’t run the Atlantic Division gantlet and come out bowl-eligible on the other side.
With wins over Tulane, Duke and Delaware, the Deacons have cleared the kind of hurdles that so often tripped up Wake Forest in the past. For a group that won six games in the previous two seasons, a 3-0 start is nothing to sneeze at.
“What happened has happened, we are proud of what they have done, but the rewards of winning the game is that the next game has meaning to us,” Clawson said. “It’s been a long time here since we have played games of meaning in October and we want to play games that mean something in October and November. For that to happen, we have to continue to play well.”
A win over Indiana would go a long way toward that, because it only gets tougher. But Wake Forest has eminently winnable home games against Syracuse, Army, Virginia and Boston College as a path to seven wins. On the flip side, they will have to travel to Florida State and Louisville, which could take a physical toll. For all their progress, the Deacons don’t have a ton of depth, and they’ll be tested without Hinton and freshman running back Cade Carney, who missed the Delaware win with a knee injury.
It’s been a long time here since we have played games of meaning in October and we want to play games that mean something in October and November. For that to happen, we have to continue to play well.
Still, the Demon Deacons have taken care of business so far, which given their recent history is no small feat. And they catch Indiana at a time when the Hoosiers are in complete disarray, with one player arrested this week on child-molestation charges and dismissed from the team and another arrested on trespassing and public-intoxication charges.
A successful season for Wake Forest would be a bonus for the state considering Duke and N.C. State already have lost 50-50 games and face a tough road to bowl eligibility and North Carolina once again sabotaged its hopes of making a national splash with a disheartening opening loss to an SEC team. The Tar Heels at least have the experience of bouncing back from that a year ago, and will get a good barometer of how possible repeating that feat will be Saturday against Pittsburgh.
No one has made more progress than Wake Forest, which hit bottom and is finally seeing some results, even if there’s still a long road ahead. The Atlantic is never easy, but there’s enough room around the margins for the Deacons to earn a trip to their first bowl since 2011 and second in the past eight years.
“I think our players are at a point where they are enjoying it but they also know why they are achieving it,” Clawson said. “It is work ethic and it is preparation and they know if they stop doing it that we won’t be successful. You have to acknowledge what they are doing now because we are doing a lot of really good things.”
For the moment, Wake Forest is undefeated. That probably won’t last. It may not last through the weekend. As long as it does last, it’s something worth celebrating.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock
Wake Forest at Indiana
When: 3:30 p.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Bloomington, Ind.
TV: Big Ten Network