No. 1 Clemson brought ruthless efficiency to its 2020 season debut, riding a strong performance from its veterans on offense and encouraging signs from the youth movement on defense to a 37-13 win at Wake Forest. The five-time ACC champion Tigers pulled their starters in the second half, playing three quarterbacks as part of a decisive road victory.
Even though Tee Higgins left for the NFL during the preseason and Justyn Ross is sitting out with an injury, quarterback Trevor Lawrence actually showed better form than at the start of 2019. After suffering his first loss as a college starter in the College Football Playoff National Championship and spending his offseason as a vocal leader on and off the field, Lawrence elevated the play of everyone around him. There were no interceptions and very few mistakes in this opener, as Lawrence threw for 351 yards on 22-of-28 passing (78.6%) and totaled three touchdowns (one passing, two rushing). The ground scores were particularly unique in that Lawrence had never had a game with multiple rushing touchdowns, and he already had two before the end of the first quarter.
Of course, all the attention on Lawrence around the goal line was thanks to yet another 100-yard performance by two-time ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne. In returning for his senior season, Etienne will likely rewrite most of the Clemson record book and extend ACC touchdown records he broke in 2019. Saturday night's feat was breaking Wayne Gallman's record for career 100-yard rushing games with his 18th such outing, totaling 102 yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts. And just like it was a senior leading the way rushing, it was another senior who stepped up in the wide receiver room with Amari Rodgers totaling 90 yards on five catches.
But with all the veteran presence on offense, the flip side is a deep and dominant defense that is burgeoning with underclassmen. True freshman defensive end Myles Murphy led the team in tackles (seven) and sacks (two), while fellow freshman Bryan Bresee flashed with an assisted sack early and redshirt sophomore K.J. Henry was flying around the field and finished with four tackles and sack.
Wake Forest had several opportunities in scoring position, but Clemson's defense bowed up each time until late in the fourth quarter when the Demon Deacons scored their lone touchdown of the game. Sam Hartman showed great toughness while under constant pressure from the Tigers defensive front, and while the Deacs offense hit a few big plays against Clemson's secondary, there was rarely a threat that put the final result in doubt.
So as the first week of ACC play comes to a close, the results for Clemson remain awfully similar to what we've seen for the last five years in conference play. Now winners in 39 of their last 41 ACC games, the Tigers have an inspiring combination of veteran leadership at key positions and a bevy of young talent that will certainly continue to develop. There have been a lot of changes to college football to allow for this 2020 season to happen, but Clemson's dominance and its grip on the ACC are a small slice of normalcy in this strange year.
Let's take a look at three takeaways from Clemson's thorough win over Wake Forest.
1. No mistakes: Lawrence entered the 2019 season with tons of hype after lighting up Notre Dame and Alabama for 300-plus yards and three touchdowns in the College Football Playoff the year prior. Those were his best games of that freshman season, and it resulted in mounds of pressure on him to perform at that level in 2019. Trying to force the issue and live up to that expectation impacted his play, and early interceptions derailed the conversation around one of college football's great talents. Much was made of the interceptions, but not much was made of the 22 touchdown, zero interception run he carried across the final eight games of the season.
Lawrence was elite as a decision-maker against Wake Forest, and that change in performance comes as he enters the 2020 season off his first-ever loss as a college player and without the kind of safety net that comes from having receivers like Higgins and Ross on the outside. Maybe all of it leads to more consistent and efficient play like what we saw on Saturday night against Wake Forest, and if so it's going to keep Lawrence in that Heisman Trophy discussion instead of seeing him fade from the spotlight.
2. This is Clemson's most talented team: Dabo Swinney believes that the raw talent of the 2020 team might be as good as any team he's coached at Clemson, and the numbers from our partners at 247Sports certainly back that up. As the game wore on and more subs took the field, it's impossible to ignore the wealth of high school stars making comparatively small impacts on the game. What's nerve-wracking for the rest of the ACC (and the nation) is that Clemson has experienced the success of its rise -- five conference titles, four appearances in the national championship game and two national titles -- with top-10 to top-15 kind of talent. Now that Myles Murphy, Bryan Bresee and quarterback DJ Uiagaleilei are anchoring top-10 to top-five kind of classes, Clemson's only getting better.
3. Touchdown drought snapped: Clemson's 12 straight wins in the series can be demoralizing for Wake Forest fans, but it was particularly tough to swallow the fact that the Deacs had not even scored a touchdown since their 2017 loss. Credit Wake Forest for never ceasing with competitiveness against the No. 1 team in the country, getting back up after each apparent knockout punch and finally finding the end zone late in the fourth quarter. Other teams may have backed down, but the Deacs remained dialed in in all three phases down to the final minute.
CBS Sports was with you the entire way updating this story with the latest from Clemson vs. Wake Forest on Saturday. Keep on scrolling for highlights and analysis from the game.