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Clemson vs. Wake Forest: Four keys to victory for Tigers in season opener

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Trevor Lawrence (copy)

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence leads the Tigers into their season opener at Wake Forest. Provided/David Platt/Clemson Athletics

CLEMSON — The Clemson Tigers are back.

It didn't always seem likely we'd get to this point, but on Saturday evening coach Dabo Swinney's team opens the 2020 campaign at Wake Forest.

This will be a season unlike any other, with the coronavirus continuing to loom over the nation. The sports world is not exempt from the public health crisis, and game day will look much different because of it.

For one thing, the Truist Field stands will be empty. And with both teams administering tests on Friday, final player availability lists won't be made available until Saturday morning.

That dynamic makes for some some uncertainty in pinning down four keys to victory for Clemson against the Demon Deacons. But for the purposes of this exercise, let's assume there won't be any major surprise absences for either side.

Let Trevor Lawrence do his thing

Lawrence is the face of college football for a reason. Before he became a national leader in the push for racial justice and player empowerment, Lawrence had established himself as potentially the best player in the nation.

The preseason ACC Player of the Year threw for 3,665 yards and 36 touchdowns with eight interceptions last season, and rushed for 563 yards and nine scores on 103 carries. 

But after Clemson fell to LSU in the College Football Playoff national championship, Lawrence vowed to get even better. Lawrence said this week that he spent the offseason working on his footwork, pocket presence and accuracy.

"And then there's something that everyone can always get better at, especially a quarterback, and that's just knowledge, keep learning. Never get in a spot where you think you know it all," he said. "I feel like our offense is in a really good spot as far as (being) detail-oriented."

An even better Lawrence is not good news for Wake Forest.

Get the ball to Travis Etienne

Lawrence's partner in the backfield is Etienne, the two-time reigning ACC Player of the Year and by many accounts the best running back in the nation.

Etienne (4,038 yards) enters the season as Clemson's all-time leading rusher. The Demon Deacons have seen plenty of Etienne over the years, including last season when the Jennings, La., native compiled 158 total yards (121 rushing) and a touchdown in the Tigers' 52-3 win Nov. 16.

The running back is set on burnishing his legacy this season, and Wake Forest will need to defend Etienne better than it did in 2019 if it hopes for the upset.

Pressure Wake's quarterback

Quarterback Jamie Newman transferred to Georgia after finishing second in the ACC in total offensive yards per game (286.8) for Wake Forest.

In his absence the Demon Deacons turn the offense over to former Oceanside Collegiate star Sam Hartman, who started nine games as a freshman in 2018 and has played in 13 games over his career.  

Hartman finished 55 of 97 (56.7 percent) for 830 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions last season. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables is trusted to work out the finer points, but part of Clemson's mission on defense should be to make Hartman uncomfortable in the pocket.

Maybe even let freshman phenom Bryan Bresee — the 6-foot-5, 300-pound defensive tackle listed as a co-starter — introduce himself to Hartman.

Embrace the unique environment

There will be no fans in attendance Saturday, including the parents of players. In an effort to normalize what will be an odd atmosphere, Wake Forest could opt to pump in crowd noise or music. 

"I really don't care. I'm just excited to play. They can pipe in Marvin Gaye or whatever they want," Swinney said.

As much as this sports writer appreciates the Prince of Soul's contributions to the world of music, the likes of 'Let's Get It On' and 'Sexual Healing' might not make for the most football-friendly atmosphere.

Whatever it sounds like inside the stadium Saturday, Clemson players should make the most of it. This is a historic time, and as the presumptive top team in the nation, all eyes will be on them. 

Prediction

Clemson 51, Wake Forest 14

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland alum. He's won national and state awards in sports and feature writing, and for reasons unclear he still roots for the New York Knicks.

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