Last year, Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson missed Christmas.
Clawson’s parents live in Charlotte, but instead of making the short trip from Winston-Salem, Clawson and the Deacons were busy with game plans in Annapolis, Md. Two days after Christmas, Clawson got his gift in the form of a 34-26 win over Temple. It was Wake Forest’s first bowl win in eight seasons.
But this year, Clawson should have no trouble making it home for the holidays. As for a second straight bowl win, that’s a different story.
Clawson’s group will take on Texas A&M in the Belk Bowl Dec. 29 at Bank of America Stadium. Now, this season’s Aggies weren’t as dominant as past teams. Plus, they’ll be without both their head coach for most of this season - Kevin Sumlin - as well as their new hire, fomer Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.
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There’s no All-American Johnny Manziel circa-2012 walking through the door, but it’s still a 7-5 SEC West opponent that beat Florida, South Carolina and Mississippi this season.
Yet, this is exactly the situation Clawson wanted for his team.
“Any bowl that invites you, you’re honored,” Clawson said. “But in the back of your mind, and with your team, there’s always one within that pool that you hope will invite you. And for us, we wanted to come to Charlotte and we wanted to be in the Belk Bowl.”
When Clawson arrived at Wake Forest after the 2013 season, he inherited a program in shambles. The team had just finished it’s fifth straight losing season, and there were few, if any, NFL prospects. Or as Clawson put it Monday, he came to a team in the ACC’s fourth quadrant.
“If you broke the ACC into quadrants, and you have the top quarter, the second quarter, the third quarter and the bottom quarter,” Clawson said, “I think the first two years we were in the bottom quarter.”
The Deacons went 3-9 in each of those seasons, but in the second of the two, they were much more competitive. Then last year, they took the next step and started winning some of those games – or to Clawson, they jumped up the hierarchy. This year has been another jump.
“In 2016, we became bowl-eligible and got ourselves into that third quadrant,” Clawson said. “If you get invited to a Tier One bowl, it’s because you’ve got to the top half of the conference.”
The Belk Bowl is one of the conference’s more prestigious bowl tie-ins, and it annually attracts some of the nation’s top teams. With Wake Forest’s geographic proximity, the game figures to be a home game of sorts for the Deacons.
So how has Clawson done it, though, transforming an ACC afterthought into a team on the cusp of eight wins?
His early years with the team, he relied on a veteran defense to keep games close while a younger offense developed.That defense graduated, leaving behind an experienced offense to carry the load. And two players, more than any others, were up to that task.
First, tight end Cam Serigne, the team’s only first-team All-ACC player. Serigne rewrote the record book for conference tight ends this season – he has the most career receptions for the most yards at his position in conference history, and he’s tied the record for tight ends (20), with a chance to break it against Texas A&M.
Then there’s quarterback John Wolford, who landed on the conference’s second team. Wolford passed for 2,792 yards and 25 touchdowns, and had another 615 yards and 10 scores rushing. In any other year (without a former Heisman winner, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, in front of him), Wolford likely would have been on the first team, too.
But those accolades are only so rewarding. What Serigne, and Wolford, and definitely Clawson really want is to beat Texas A&M. They want to prove that wins over previously ranked Temple and N.C. State aren’t flukes. To prove that Wake Forest is no longer in the bottom quadrant of the ACC.
And really, that’s about as good a Christmas gift as Clawson could ask for.