Rebuilding a program usually doesn’t happen like a elevator headed straight to the top. It’s often stair steps: a few more wins, better recruits, better facilities, more wins and so on. In the end, the key to that kind of rebuild is sustaining momentum — keeping the cycle of positives moving forward.
Dave Clawson already has achieved a number of those steps in his rebuild of the Wake Forest football program. He can show recruits significantly improved facilities and tell them that the Deacons now boast consecutive winning seasons. The Belk Bowl against Texas A&M will give him a chance for two more big momentum steps: two straight bowl victories and a signature win.
Although Clawson beat a ranked Temple team last season in the Military Bowl, it’s difficult to call a victory over the Owls a signature win. To find the last victory over a school seen as a major program outside the ACC, you have to go back to the Jim Grobe era.
In 2009, the Deacons beat a Stanford team led by Jim Harbaugh that would go on to finish 8-5. In 2008, Wake Forest beat Mississippi, which would finish 9-4. That also was the last time the Deacons beat an SEC school outside of Vanderbilt.
While the Aggies may only be 7-5 this season, A&M is a big-name program in the football conference with the biggest reputation, and they just made the biggest offseason splash with the hiring of Jimbo Fisher. They’re in a state that provides a ton of talent to college programs every year, and when recruiting Texas, it would be huge for Clawson to be able to show off that Wake Forest can beat a program like A&M.
Dave Clawson certainly has a shot at pulling off that victory. Vegas has Wake Forest as a slight favorite, and ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Deacons a 60 percent shot at winning.
The Deacons will be as “home” as they could be for a bowl game, which should keep the players comfortable and increase the crowd (although Texas A&M certainly will travel well). For the second straight season, Wake Forest also will get to face a program that’s in the middle of a coaching transition, which worked out well for the Deacons last year.
While A&M can put up some points (44th in the country), nothing special stands out on their resume. Their defense gave up at least 24 points in seven games and 35-plus in five of those. Their turnover ratio is only plus-four.
The Aggies’ losses were to good teams: UCLA (6-6), Mississippi State (8-4), Alabama (ranked No. 1 at the time), Auburn (No. 14) and LSU (No. 18). But their list of victories is not impressive, including only one team that finished with a winning record: South Carolina (8-4).
Thinking about momentum, a Belk Bowl victory also would be a significant step because next season sets up well for the Deacons again. Although Clawson will lose some significant players, including John Wolford, Cam Serigne and Duke Ejiofor, he only loses seven senior contributors overall.
The bowl game means a whole month of extra practices, and the Deacons should have plenty of talent returning. Next year’s schedule is favorable as well. Wake Forest plays three winnable non-conference games: FCS Towson, Rice (1-11 this year) and at Tulane (5-7 this year was its fourth straight losing season).
In the ACC, the Deacons have home games against Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh and a road game against Duke. It’s easy to see another six wins, at least, from that slate.
So while a loss in the Belk Bowl certainly wouldn’t tear down anything that Dave Clawson has built in Winston-Salem, the upside of a Wake Forest victory certainly seems to be significant.