Trevor Lawrence has only lost one game since taking over as Clemson’s starting quarterback in 2018.
But that one defeat was a big one – a lopsided 42-25 loss to Louisiana State in last year’s College Football Playoff championship game – and certainly one that has the potential No. 1 NFL draft pick motivated for some measure of redemption this season entering Saturday night’s (7:30 p.m., ABC) season opener at Wake Forest.
But Lawrence insists he isn’t going to allow himself to be consumed with the task of helping the Tigers reach the title game for the fifth time in six seasons.
He’s vowed to enjoy the journey rather than focusing on the destination.
“Getting one last year in college, that’s a special time," said Lawrence, who is 25-1 as Clemson's starting QB. “The things at the next level are awesome, and I’ll be grateful for them when they come, but you don’t want to give this time back.”
Clemson has won five straight Atlantic Coast Conference championships – most of those in dominant and predictable fashion – but this year's quest includes an added obstacle with 10th-ranked Notre Dame joining the conference.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, of course, isn't looking that far ahead.
Swinney is continuing with his “win the day” motto, something that has helped the Tigers to a remarkable 69-5 record over the past five seasons.
“Opening game, you’re always trying to get everybody in the rhythm of the season, in sync," Swinney said. “But this year has been like none other in that regard. Just super, super excited."
Clemson will be without some familiar weapons on offense with wide receiver Tee Higgins leaving for the NFL and Justyn Ross out for the year after spinal fusion surgery. Together they combined to catch 21 of Lawrence's 36 touchdown passes and more than 50% of his 3,665 passing yards in 2019.
The Tigers will face an upstart Wake Forest team that is 30-22 over the past four seasons under coach Dave Clawson, but one that has lost nine starters from last year's 8-5 team including quarterback Jamie Newman and top wide receiver Sage Surratt.
Clawson has been publicly confident in the next wave of skill players set to take larger roles, while it helps that starting quarterback Sam Hartman has started 10 games in his career previously.
“It’s just everyone’s kind of going to take honestly a big sigh of relief that we made this far,” Hartman said of playing the opener, adding: “I think it’s just all across like our program, you can feel that there’s just kind of this excitement building that we have the opportunity to play college football on a Saturday.”
Clemson fans typically travel well to Wake Forest, but they won't be around this time due to rules surrounding COVID-19. No fans at all are allowed in the stadium. Swinney joked when asked what he thought of Wake Forest using simulated crowd noise at the opening game.
“Listen, I really don’t care, I’m just excited to play,” Swinney said. “They can pipe in Marvin Gaye or whatever they want, let’s crank it up.”
ESPN will broadcast its College GameDay pregame show from Wake Forest for the first time in program history. The show usually takes place amid a backdrop of fans at the location. That won't happen Saturday. “We’re in a pandemic, but we’re going to celebrate the fact that they’re coming,” Clawson said. ”We get to play college football and GameDay is here and we’re on national television. And we love it.”
Clawson said his players wanted to make social-injustice statements with the national TV attention that comes with the arrival of the nation’s top-ranked team and GameDay. Linebacker Ryan Smenda Jr. said this week that the Demon Deacons plan to have emblems of a fist on their helmets along with the message of “Black Lives Matter.” “They felt they had an opportunity and a platform with our first game to make some statements and to show that we are unified as a program and as a football team,” Clawson said.
Not opting out
Unlike Wake Forest's Surratt, who opted out of the season to prepare for the NFL draft, Lawrence said he never really considered sitting out even though 23 Clemson teammates once tested positive for the coronavirus. “I didn’t feel like I was at more risk playing football here than I would be just living in general,” Lawrence said. “I was like, ‘Man, I want to play football if it is to be my last year here.’ I want to enjoy it with my teammates.’”
Clemson's top new prospect defensive tackle Bryan Bresee is listed as a starter in his first college game, although he’ll rotate with fifth-year senior Nyles Pinckney and junior Jordan Williams. Swinney said the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Bresee physically was “ready (to play) the day he got here.” Bresee was rated the top college prospect from 247 Sports and third overall by ESPN.