College Football Preview: Wake Forest at Clemson
CLEMSON, S.C. ó Clemson defensive tackle Brandon Thompson remembers the excitement and uncertainty of his first run down Death Valleyís famous hill. Three years later, the senior is ready for a more satisfying sprint in his final entrance at home for the ninth-ranked Tigers.
Clemson (8-1, 5-1 ACC) can clinch the ACC Atlantic Division and reach the leagueís championship game for the second time in three seasons with a win today over Wake Forest (5-4, 4-2). Thatís a far cry from where the Tigers were in Thompsonís freshman season.
The 6-foot-2, 310-pounder had plenty of potential but not much savvy back then. But after the then-No. 9 Tigers were beaten 34-10 by unranked Alabama to start the 2008 season, Clemsonís coaches decided Thompson was too good to redshirt and stuck in him the following week against the Citadel. It was only a few weeks later that Thompson and his teammates were thrown into turmoil when coach Tommy Bowden was let go midseason and Dabo Swinney took over.
Thompson is now considered one of the top NFL prospects at his position and a leader on a Tigers team with a shot at its first ACC crown since 1991.
ěLook at us now,î Thompson said with a smile.
First things first.
Clemsonís seniors hope to jog off the field Saturday with the divisional championship. Wake Forest, though, is still alive in the chase and can reach the title game should it follow a win at Memorial Stadium with a victory next week over Maryland.
Some might see those chances as remote since Clemson is a 161/2-point favorite and the Demon Deacons havenít won at Death Valley since 1998. Wake Forest smells opportunity.
ěWeíre lucky enough to have our destiny in our hands and be in control of that,î Demon Deacons guard Colin Summers said. ěWe realize how important this week is.î
As do the Tigers. They were the talk of college football and the ACCís best chance to bust into the BCS title talk with a surprising 8-0 start, their best run in 11 years. Clemsonís high-flying offense, though, was taken down a notch or two by Georgia Tech in a 31-17 upset two weeks ago. The Tigers spent last week resting, recovering and refocusing on the goals ahead instead of those in the rear-view mirror.
ěThis is the biggest game of the year and we have a lot at stake,î Swinney said.
Especially for seniors such as Thompson. The run-stuffer is third on the Tigers with 52 tackles. His ability in the middle has opened up lanes for defensive ends Andre Branch, Kourtnei Brown and Malliciah Goodman to make plays. Thompson is considered a first-round draft pick and ESPN analyst Todd McShay lists him as the ninth-best prospect overall.
ěI donít worry about any of that stuff,î Thompson said.
Thompson said heís much prouder of the programís progress than individual honors. He knows the Tigers can take a very huge step with a win this weekend.
ěWhen I started at the beginning, I was young and it really didnít hit me what was going onî with the program, he said.
Thompson understands the defense must pick up its game against the Demon Deacons, whoíve lost their past two games to North Carolina and Notre Dame.
Clemson gave up 433 yards, 383 of those on the ground, in the loss to Georgia Tech. Most upsetting for the defense was the Yellow Jacketsí next-to-last possession, which took up more than 9 minutes of the fourth quarter and stalled the Tigersí chance to rally.
Wake Forest plays a similar brand of smart, fundamental football that at times has put Clemson on its heels. Demon Deacons coach Jim Grobe remembers too well the 38-3 loss at Memorial Stadium two years ago that was the Tigersí first of six straight victories as they swept to the division championship.
Grobe thinks his team will show more poise on this trip, knowing what the players can achieve with a victory.
ěYouíve got to go in there and realize that thereís going to be some highs and lows, and not let the times that theyíre having some success take you completely out of the game,î Grobe said.
The Associated Press