Remember those days when Clemson and its fanbase dreaded playing at Wake Forest?
During the Tommy Bowden years, the Tigers were 3-3 at Groves Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., including three losses in their last four meetings there under the former coach.
Times have changed, though. When fourth-ranked Clemson heads to Wake Forest on Saturday it will be seeking its fifth straight road win in the series, which will tie for the second-best mark in the series’ history. The Tigers won five straight road games in the series from 1978-’90 as well.
Clemson (5-0, 2-0 ACC) won seven straight times at Wake Forest from 1950-’66.
For some reason, Clemson always underachieved at Wake Forest under Bowden, who sometimes blamed the atmosphere at the stadium, which holds just 31,500, as a letdown to what the Tigers were used to when they played in front of 80,000 each week in Death Valley. It was usually hard for his teams to get into the game and they usually played down to the competition because of it.
In 2003, the Demon Deacons ran Clemson out of Groves Stadium with a 45-17 victory. The Tigers trailed 45-0 at one point. The next week, Clemson beat No. 3 Florida State at home and won its last four games of the season, routing the Seminoles, Duke, South Carolina and Tennessee in the 2004 Peach Bowl. Wake Forest did not win another game the rest of the year.
In 2005, a botched fake field goal allowed Wake to down the Tigers, 31-27. It was another embarrassing loss to the 1-3 Deacons at the time.
In 2006, if it wasn’t for Gaines Adams 66-yard touchdown return on a botched field goal attempt by Wake Forest, the Tigers would have perhaps lost that game as well. Clemson trailed 17-3 in the fourth quarter at the time. The Tigers went on to win the game 27-17.
In 2008, Bowden’s last game as the head coach at Clemson, the Demon Deacons won an ugly 12-7 game, the last time they defeated the Tigers. Since then, all under head coach Dabo Swinney, the Tigers have won nine straight, including four wins at Groves Stadium.
In those four wins, Clemson has won by an average margin of 21.3 points per game. What has been the difference? The atmosphere at Wake Forest is still the same as it was when Bowden was the Tigers’ head coach.
“It is just our culture,” said Swinney, who was an assistant coach at Clemson during those four games at Wake when they went 1-3. “Every game is the biggest game of the year. You know? Every game! Every opponent. There is nobody we play that can’t beat us.
“We just try to make it about us.”
Obviously, that approach has worked well for the Tigers at Wake and everywhere else for that matter. Even during Clemson’s worst year under Swinney in 2010, the Tigers went to Wake Forest and beat the Deacons, 30-10.
Since then they beat Wake 42-13 in 2012, 34-20 in 2014 and 35-13 in 2016. Only the 2014 game was close as it was tied at 20 in the fourth quarter before Clemson pulled away with two touchdowns.
“We don’t worry about who we play or where we play or any of that stuff,” Swinney said. “We play to a standard. That’s our culture.”
Clemson wins just about everywhere these days, whether its in Death Valley, at Wake Forest or at a neutral site. They know how to win no matter the weather conditions, the atmosphere in the stadium or the mystique of a certain opponent.
It is not about whom they are playing, but about how they play. Clemson is 16-1 in its last 17 true road games.
“That’s why we have been so consistent. That’s just good players buying into that,” Swinney said.