Wisconsin and Wake Forest are scheduled to meet one another on the football field for the first time in history as they clash in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Wednesday.
The matchup features two of the more successful postseason coaches at their current stop, with Badgers coach Paul Chryst holding a 4-1 record in bowl games at Wisconsin and Dave Clawson, who snapped a nine-year bowl drought for the Demon Deacons back in 2016, boasting a 3-1 record in bowl games since his arrival in Winston-Salem.
This is the third time in four years Wisconsin will face a team from the ACC in the postseason following back-to-back wins against Miami in the Orange Bowl and the Pinstripe Bowl in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Meanwhile, this is the second-straight season Wake Forest will face a team from the Big Ten after a 27-21 loss to Michigan State in last year’s Pinstripe Bowl.
After an electric start against Illinois in the Big Ten opener, Wisconsin starting quarterback Graham Mertz tested positive for COVID-19 in what became a string of cancellations that dampened the excitement for Big Ten title contention.
This is a program that’s used to competing for the conference title and a team that started the year with expectations of doing so with a high-powered offense winning its first two games by a combined score of 94-18. Unfortunately, the year finishes with no Big Ten West title, but there is the chance to continue the postseason success that has been as closely tied to the identity of the Chryst era as elite defenses and offensive line play.
Wake Forest finished at 4-4 after navigating one of the most difficult schedules in the ACC, facing three of the five teams from the conference to finish in the top 25 of the College Football Playoff Rankings. The Demon Deacons were also scheduled to play Notre Dame in the Duke’s Mayo Classic on two different occasions, but the game was postponed during the league’s many adjustments to the regular-season schedule. The Demon Deacons, like Wisconsin, did not finish the year as they had hoped with back-to-back losses to North Carolina and Louisville, and hope to finish on a strong note with a win against one of the country’s most prestigious programs.
Wisconsin: The Badgers entered the season needing to answer the burning question of how it would replace star running back Jonathan Taylor. The answer initially proved to be a more dynamic passing attack, but ultimately the workload was handled by a committee approach with senior Garrett Groshek (54 carries, 259 yards), sophomore Nakia Watson (53 carries, 191 yards) and freshman Jalen Berger (45 carries, team-high 267 yards) among the many skill players contributing to the team’s ground efforts. Where Wisconsin stayed the course from previous seasons was with one of the best defenses in the country.
The Badgers lead the nation in total defense, giving up just 263.5 yards per game while ranking No. 6 among all FBS teams with just 15.7 points per game allowed. Over the last five seasons, Wisconsin’s defense has given up an average of 17.0 points per game — only Clemson (15.0) and Alabama (16.0) have been better in that span. The 2020 Badgers defense has been exceptional on third downs, allowing opponents to convert just 25.4 percent of their third down attempts this season, the best mark in the FBS. No opponent this season converted more than 40% of their third downs against Wisconsin this year, with Indiana (4-for-10) having the most success in those key situations.
Wake Forest: Some believe that turnovers are just luck, but Dave Clawson has long believed that you can coach to both limiting your own mistakes and creating a mentality on defense that leads to those game-changing plays. Clawson’s best evidence is his own Wake Forest program, which in 2020 was once again finding ways to make gains at the game’s margins and give the Demon Deacons their best chance to win with an FBS-best +13 turnover margin and only three turnovers on the season.
Among those turnovers gained were 12 interceptions by nine different players, with three of them being returned for touchdowns. Meanwhile, Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman had a streak of 258 consecutive passes without an interception before it was snapped in the regular-season finale against Louisville to finish as the fifth-longest interception-free streak in ACC history.
Turnover margin is also a great indicator for success for Clawson’s Wake Forest teams, with a 27-10 record when the Demon Deacons win the turnover battle and a 16-3 record when they finish with a +2 advantage or better.
Game: Duke’s Mayo Bowl
Date: Wednesday, Dec. 30 | Time: 12 p.m. ET
Location: Bank of America Stadium — Charlotte, North Carolina
TV: ESPN | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Duke’s Mayo Bowl prediction, picks
While Wake Forest has some great experience against top programs here in Charlotte, the same site where it knocked off Texas A&M in a shootout back in 2017, a repeat of that result seems less likely given the current state of the Demon Deacons roster.
Late-season opt outs by defensive end Carlos “Boogie” Basham and running back Kenneth Walker III plus injuries have tested this team’s depth, and I think the physical challenge presented by Wisconsin on both sides of the ball needs a lineup as close to full strength as possible. As long as the Badgers don’t leave the door open with mistakes and turnovers, they should be able to play bully ball and win the game at the line of scrimmage.