WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Things are about to get tougher for Wake Forest.
The Demon Deacons stumbled through the seemingly easy portion of the schedule and wound up just .500.
Now they're about to find out where they stand in comparison to the Atlantic Coast Conference's highest-ranked team — No. 3 Clemson.
After splitting its first four games against, Wake Forest (2-2, 0-1) finds itself in a tough spot this week as a four-touchdown underdog to the national championship-contending Tigers (3-0, 1-0).
"We're behind the 8-ball a little bit because we stubbed our toe," coach Jim Grobe said Tuesday of losses to Boston College and Louisiana-Monroe, calling them "not games that we should have won but games that we could have won."
Their next four opponents — Clemson, North Carolina State, Maryland and No. 15 Miami — are a combined 12-1. Their first four (Presbyterian, BC, Louisiana-Monroe and Army) have combined to go 6-8, and neither win has come against a team with a winning record.
"Mentally, as a team, we feel like we're still in it," nose tackle Nikita Whitlock said Tuesday. "We know we have to play our tails off. The rest of our schedule's not easy. But we know that we're .500 right now, and we know we can win some games and we still have a chance."
Clemson — and all highly ranked teams, really — have vexed the Demon Deacons through the years. The Tigers have won four straight and six of the past seven in the series.
After Wake Forest's only win in that span, Clemson made a midseason coaching change — ousting Tommy Bowden in 2008 and elevating assistant Dabo Swinney to the top job.
The Demon Deacons have never beaten a top-three team, and are 1-33 against the top five with the only win coming in 1946.
"It's definitely a huge challenge, but in-house, we believe," receiver Michael Campanaro said. "Nobody's really giving us a chance outside of our locker room, but we've got an older group of guys which will help in a game like this. ... We think we'll be hanging around in the fourth" quarter.
It will certainly help if the Demon Deacons can finally get their ground game going. They incorporated elements of the option into their system this offseason with little success, averaging just 86 yards rushing during their first three games.
But after falling behind Army 11-10 late in the third quarter, the light seemed to come on and Wake Forest wound up piling up a season-best 228 yards on the ground in a 25-11 victory.
"It wasn't a secret we couldn't go to Death Valley 1-3," Grobe said.
Establishing the run hasn't been easy against Clemson.
During their losing streak in the series, the Demon Deacons haven't put up more than 145 yards rushing. They failed to crack triple digits in rushing yardage in three of those losses, and wound up losing them by an average of 28 points.
N.C. State showed that it's possible to run on these Tigers. The Wolfpack rushed for 165 yards — and would have been well over 200 had an official not ruled that Bryan Underwood stepped out of bounds on a long run — in a 26-14 loss.
That, along with the fresh memory of a 31-28 near-miss in their last trip to Clemson two years ago, has given the Demon Deacons a glimmer of hope that they can pull a shocker — and get a once-promising season fully back on track.
"The older guys on the team, just talking with multiple guys, keeping them upbeat and getting the belief in the locker room," Campanaro said. "I think our team definitely believes we can go in there and pull the upset off. We just have to put in the work this week."