The college football world will be focused directly on Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Saturday night when No. 1-ranked Clemson starts its journey toward a sixth straight ACC title against Wake Forest. In a normal season this would be an ACC Atlantic game as the two face off annually as division foes, but in this unique season with Notre Dame as a full member and all 15 teams grouped together in one division, the contest carries just as much weight as the rest of the 10 conference games scheduled for 2020.
Expectations for the Tigers have not lessened one bit as they take the field for the first time since falling to LSU in the national title game in January. Trevor Lawrence, now 25-1 as a starting college quarterback, has not opted out but doubled down on his opt in for the 2020 season, serving as a megaphone for players who wanted to be on the field this fall and for teammates of color who wanted to use their platform as Clemson players to bring attention to racial injustice.
Meanwhile, the Demon Deacons have tons of holes to fill and have not had a ton of time to prepare for facing the No. 1 team in the country. Coach Dave Clawson needs a new starting quarterback after Jamie Newman transferred as a grad student to Georgia (before opting out of the season) and star wide receiver after Sage Surratt opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft. How the team plays with a new leader under center could go a long way in telling how this unusual season goes in Winston-Salem.
So how will the game play out and what are the major storylines to follow? Let's take a closer look at the matchup and make some picks straight up and against the spread.
Clemson: While Lawrence and two-time ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne are more than household names at this point, part of the intrigue in watching these first Clemson games will be seeing how the team has reloaded after losing key pieces like its top-two receivers (Tee Higgins to the NFL, Justyn Ross to injury) and its do-everything defensive star Isaiah Simmons. Even with the turnover from last year's 14-1 squad, it's possible this group is even more talented, albeit inexperienced. It should be concerning to not only the ACC but the rest of college football that Clemson has risen to become one of the top programs in the sport with top-15 to top-10 caliber recruiting classes, relying on finding the right fit and great player development to stand toe-to-toe with talent-rich teams like Alabama and Ohio State. In the last few years, Clemson has moved into that top-five to top-10 level, beating out the blue bloods for recruits and seeing its overall team talent rankings move up. So if Clemson can win two national championships with two national runner-up finishes in a five-year span with top-15 talent, what's the ceiling for dominance now that they're up int the top five? Watching the youth movement work its way into the rotation will be fascinating, and considering the point spread here and down the line, it's likely those backups will be getting plenty of experience.
Wake Forest: With Jamie Newman transferring to Georgia (and then later opting out) and star wide receiver Sage Surratt opting out of the 2020 season, the offense will likely have its hands full trying to handle the Tigers. Quarterback Sam Hartman has been successful as the Demon Deacons' starter before and has a chance to be so again, but going into this particular matchup without Surratt is going to require a phenomenal effort by everyone involved to create any kind of sustained success on offense. Carlos "Boogie" Basham is an NFL talent on the defensive side of the ball who will have a chance to show out for the scouts against four new starters on Clemson's offensive line, but the victories will be moral and the improvements may incremental when considering this game as a building block of Wake Forest's path to the postseason in 2020.
Date: Saturday, Sept. 12 | Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Truist Field -- Winston-Salem, North Carolina
TV: ABC | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Game prediction, picks
National television is going to be a heck of a stage for the entire country to realize that Clemson's defensive line is right back to 2017-18 levels of depth and dominance. Sophomore Tyler Davis is going to be one of the best interior defensive linemen in the country this season, fellow sophomore K.J. Henry is ready to be the next great Clemson pass rusher and the true freshman duo of Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy have "over-delivered" on their five-star promise according to Clemson's coaches. That group is going to run five or six deep with player that could start on any line in the conference, and it's going to cause all kinds of problems for Wake Forest in this matchup. Even if Trevor Lawrence gets off to a 2019-like slow start with Higgins and Ross gone, the defense will be so disruptive it will be tough for the Deacs' offense to get in any kind of rhythm. Pick: Clemson (-33)