Clemson University

In the driver's seat

Clemson wide receiver Aaron Kelly hauls in a 27-yard touchdown pass in front of Maryland defensive back J.J. Justice during the second quarter as Clemson defeated Maryland 30-17 last Saturday. With games remaining against Wake Forest and Boston College, the Tigers have a chance to win the ACC Atlantic division and earn a spot in the ACC Championship game.
Clemson wide receiver Aaron Kelly hauls in a 27-yard touchdown pass in front of Maryland defensive back J.J. Justice during the second quarter as Clemson defeated Maryland 30-17 last Saturday. With games remaining against Wake Forest and Boston College, the Tigers have a chance to win the ACC Atlantic division and earn a spot in the ACC Championship game.

CLEMSON -- A sellout crowd. A chance at an Atlantic Coast Conference title. And the team in Clemson's way is the league's defending champion.

About the only thing that doesn't fit for longtime Tiger fans is the road block: Wake Forest.

"The championship goes through Wake Forest," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden says flatly.

The 20th-ranked Tigers (7-2, 4-2 ACC) face Wake Forest (6-3, 4-2) in Death Valley, controlling their path to the ACC title game.

Clemson rarely had much trouble with the Demon Deacons the past half-century or so, going 47-8-1 against them since 1950. Not only were Tiger wins demanded, a loss to Wake Forest usually signaled a coaching change -- 1976 with Red Parker, 1993 with Ken Hatfield and 1998 with Tommy West.

All were gone the following season after losing three of Wake Forest's four wins over Clemson between 1971 and 2002.

But things have changed since coach Jim Grobe came to Wake Forest seven seasons ago.

Grobe's club has beaten Clemson twice in the past four years, including a 45-17 win in 2003 that nearly added Bowden to the list of ex-Tiger coaches.

These days, Clemson doesn't dare get caught counting on a victory over the Demon Deacons.

"We know when watch film, we know that these are the guys that pretty much had our number," offensive lineman Chris McDuffie said. "We want to be special this year."

The Tigers and Demon Deacons are tied for second in the ACC's Atlantic Division, a game behind Boston College.

The Eagles looked like they had a smooth path to the championship game at 8-0, their best start since 1942. But Florida State ended that with a 27-17 win at Boston College last weekend, and father Bobby Bowden's Seminoles opened the door for his son, Tommy.

Should Clemson beat Wake Forest, it would have the Eagles coming to Death Valley Nov. 17 for a divisional showdown.

Should the Demon Deacons beat Clemson, they'd turn into the country's biggest Tiger fans, needing an Eagle loss for any hope of a second straight conference title.

Boston College faces Maryland this weekend, and Wake Forest finishes its ACC season against North Carolina State on Nov. 17.

For Clemson, the process is simple: win the next two.

"We know our destiny's in our own hands," Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper said. "It's an exciting time for us."

The fans feel that, too. Bowden said its the first time Death Valley has been sold out for a Wake Forest game.

"I think anytime you have the reigning champions coming into your stadium, and you're in the driver's seat, we haven't had that since I've been here," Bowden said. "I don't think enthusiasm and emotion is going to be any problem."

Wake's title defense seemed over before it really began. The Demon Deacons lost to Boston College to start the season and fell to Nebraska before the Cornhuskers' season went into disarray.

Six straight wins revived the team's chances, and Demon Deacons understand what's at stake.

"We can't control what other people do. We can only control what we do," Wake Forest defensive lineman Anthony Davis said. "Our next challenge is Clemson. All we're doing is focusing on them and getting ready for a game plan, and get ready to go down to Death Valley and try to get a victory."

That might be easier said than done. Wake Forest has only won once there in its last six tries.

Bowden thought his team was as spirited and lively at practice as they have ever been during his nine seasons. The reason, he says, is simple.

"I don't think we've been this close, this late," Bowden said.

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