For Wake Forest, scheduling is the name of the game that matters most

Last season, Dave Clawson had his Deacons at 5-1 on Oct. 8, one game away from bowl eligibility. That win eventually came, but it was Wake Forest’s only win in the last six games of the regular season — and it took squeezing out a home victory against a Virginia team that only won one conference game.

This season, Clawson had his Deacons at 4-0 on Sept. 23. Wake Forest has lost three straight since, and the window for those two wins for bowl eligibility is shrinking. Most would argue that Wake Forest actually has a better team than last season, but Clawson still could be shut out of a bowl game.

Why the difference? It’s all in the schedule.


Check the slate

Last season, the Deacons had three good chances for non-conference wins, plus two beatable Atlantic teams at home and both of their Coastal opponents were beatable and at home. While Wake Forest flipped two predicted results, beating Indiana on the road and losing to Army at home, the schedule played out in the Deacons’ favor.

This season’s slate was not even close to as generous with key games on the road, and a good Georgia Tech team replacing a terrible Virginia team.

Assuming that Clawson keeps the program competitive, get used to this idea that the schedule might be the main factor in determining the Deacons’ postseason fate every year.


Let’s break down the main issues

1 — What is the quality of Wake Forest’s non-conference opponents?

2 — What is the quality of the Coastal opponent and where is the game?

3 — How many teams in the division are beatable and, most important, where are those games?

For the sake of examining how this plays out over the next few years, let’s also make a couple of educated guesses:

●The Deacons are going to be competitive, but are not going to become a football power. While Wake Forest and Duke are capable of a breakthrough season here and there, neither program has shown that it can sustain that level, mainly because of its academic rigor and small size.

●The general quality of the league is going to remain about the same. In other words, the ACC will have a couple dominant teams, and a couple solid second-tier teams. So in the Atlantic, if Louisville drops off after Lamar Jackson leaves, a program like N.C. State may take its place.


A closer look at each of these factors over the next four seasons

Non-conference opponents: The outlook for these four games will remain pretty consistent for the Deacons. In each season, they’ve scheduled three teams they should beat, and one game where they probably won’t be favored.

The “should beat” teams include two games each against Tulane, Old Dominion and Rice, plus Liberty, Elon, Utah State, Appalachian State, Army and Northern Illinois. The only road games are at Tulane, at Rice and at Old Dominion.

However, in each of the next four seasons, the Deacons either play Notre Dame or UNC as a non-conference game. The good news is that those are all home games, except the 2021 UNC game (although the 2020 N.D. game is in Charlotte). The bad news is that Wake Forest likely will be the underdog in each, assuming a healthier UNC program plays better.


Conference challenges

Coastal division foe: Perhaps the biggest wild-card on the schedule every year will be what team the Deacons will face from the other division and where that game is played. Obviously, facing Virginia at home last year gave the Deacons a better chance for a win than facing division champion Virginia Tech on the road.

Looking ahead, it appears the Deacons face a mixed bag over the next four seasons: 2018, Pittsburgh at home; 2019, Virginia Tech on the road; 2020, Miami at home; 2021, Virginia on the road.

Beatable Atlantic teams: These are the teams that the Deacons must be able to compete with every year. Over the past couple seasons, Syracuse and Boston College have fit this description. Perhaps a troubled Florida State actually fit that description this year.

Assuming that there are always about three of these games, the most important factor is where those games take place. Why? Well, because the Deacons haven’t shown they can win on the road.

Wake Forest has only won eight road games in the ACC since the 2006 Orange Bowl season, and only two in Clawson’s three-plus seasons. Only one of those teams finished with a winning ACC record (FSU in 2008). The rest were 10-46 in league play.


So how does this shake out?

In 2018 and 2020, the Deacons get B.C., Syracuse and Clemson at home, then on the road in 2019 and 2021. In 2019 and 2021, the Deacons get Florida State, Louisville and N.C. State at home, and on the road in 2018 and 2020. Right now, that seems like a tough trio to find a victory against.

The location of the changing Coastal opponent follows the B.C./Syracuse/Clemson schedule, and the location of the Duke game follows the FSU/Louisville/N.C. State schedule.

Combining these factors: The result of all these factors is that the Deacons’ schedule is pretty predictable. Every season, the Deacons should have four games they have a good chance to win: Duke and three non-conference games.

Also, in each season, the Deacons have at least four games that they’ll likely lose: one non-conference, two powerful Atlantic teams and one Atlantic road game.

That means that every season will come down to the quality of the opponent and the location of about four games: the changing Coastal team and the beatable Atlantic teams.

Knowing that, we already can make predictions over the next few seasons, assuming Clawson keeps the Deacons playing well.

2018: The Deacons get three winnable non-conference games and B.C., Syracuse and Pittsburgh at home. Duke is on the road, but it still looks like a good path to a bowl game.

2019: The Deacons get three winnable non-conference games and Duke at home, but the Atlantic home slate is tough, and the Coastal game is Virginia Tech on the road. Seems like a long-shot for a bowl unless Louisville and N.C. State fall off after their quarterbacks leave.

2020: After three winnable non-conference games, the Deacons would have to play things just right to go bowling. Wake Forest would have to beat Duke on the road and win at least two from B.C., Syracuse and Miami at home.

2021: Again, the Deacons will have to win on the road. Winning three non-conference games and beating Duke at home gets them to four wins, but even beating Virginia on the road leaves Wake Forest looking for one more win.


Dave Clawson: Going Forward

Obviously plenty of variables can shift over the next four seasons. For example, in the 2006-2008 stretch, the Deacons beat four ranked teams. But they’ve only beaten two since then (FSU in 2011 and Temple last season).

Teams within the ACC can rise and fall in prominence. In 2020, perhaps Miami is one of nation’s top teams, or perhaps it’s fallen back to hard times. The Deacons play UNC twice, so the state of that program could be key.

But despite those possibilities, it’s not too difficult to look at Wake Forest and see that the way its schedule falls is almost as important as the talent Clawson puts on the field. Unless Wake Forest jumps significantly in talent or the league falls off, it looks like Clawson and fans of the program will continue to walk a fine line every year when it comes to the Deacons’ bowl outlook.


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