Wake Forest trip is huge for Clemson


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Wake Forest trip is huge for Clemson

Clemson has played in a lot of big games the past few years.

There was, of course, the ACC championship game and the College Football Playoff semifinal and national championship game last year and many key regular-season games and showdown bowl matchups in previous seasons.

But Saturday’s trip to Wake Forest – yes Wake Forest – ranks right up there.

Clemson’s loss to Pittsburgh last week leaves the Tigers with no wiggle room if they want to achieve their goals this season – an ACC championship, a return to the College Football Playoff semifinals and a possible return trip to the championship game (and maybe win it this time). So that makes Saturday’s game at Wake Forest pivotal if the Tigers want to get play for championships this season.

Win, and they’re in the ACC title game. Lose, and Louisville is in. It’s that simple.

If Clemson can win Saturday, then beat South Carolina for the third straight season and win the ACC title – against possibly Virginia Tech or North Carolina – its goals are right there for the taking. But after Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh, those goals seem at least a little bit out of reach.

That’s odd to even type because all those goals seemed well within the Tigers’ grasp entering the game with Pittsburgh. If Clemson had won last week, it would have clinched the ACC Atlantic Division title, and that’s what made the loss to Pittsburgh so frustrating and surprising.

Yes, Clemson’s offense rolled up a ton of yards, but the season-long issue with turnovers and questionable offensive decisions continued. All season long, the Tigers have walked the tightrope with those mistakes – the five turnovers against Louisville, four turnovers and the fortunate missed field goal against N.C. State and close calls against Auburn, Troy and Florida State – but they fell off the tightrope against the Panthers.

Yes, there were horrible calls by the officials against the Clemson defense, but when a defense makes the kind of fundamental mistakes that Clemson made against Pittsburgh, it’s hard to blame a few bad calls. That was stunning to see, really. Clemson has had flashes of last year’s missed assignments, but for the most part this season, the defense has been solid, if not dominant.

Against the Panthers, the defense looked lost, and that was the most stunning part of the stunning loss.

And stunning is the right word for that loss and the feelings that came after it. No longer do the Tigers seem to have nine lives and the ability to get out of any tight situation and pull out a win. No longer do they have an air of invincibility about them. Their own fundamental mistakes – the turnovers and defensive lapses last week – took that away.

Now the Tigers need to get that back. They need to get back on the right track, and they have that chance Saturday at Wake Forest.

If Clemson is going to be the kind of team everyone thinks it can be – and achieve its goals – it has to start this week, with fundamentals, with taking care of the football, with being sound on defense.
And with a win.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and co-host of The Midday Sports Zone on Middle Georgia’s ESPN, 93.1 FM and 99.5 FM. Follow him on Twitter at @DM_Shirley and read his blog at macon.com/peachsports.

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