Wake Forest looks to take another step forward

              File-This Aug. 1, 2018, file photo shows Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson looking on during an NCAA college football practice in Winston-Salem, N.C. The Demon Deacons are pursuing a third straight bowl bid in Clawson’s fifth season. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — Patience has been a necessity through the years at Wake Forest. Fifth-year coach Dave Clawson hopes it continues to pay off.

After following two 3-9 finishes with two bowl victories, Clawson has what appears to be his best team yet at the school — one that could contend for a title in a tough division that also features perennial ACC powers Clemson and Florida State.

“It’s a lot more enjoyable being up here after consecutive winning seasons and consecutive bowl wins,” Clawson said. “And the thing that I’m most excited about is I really believe that we’ve built a foundation that we can sustain success. I think if you look at the history of Wake Forest football, there (have) been flashes of success, but I think that we’ve built something that we can sustain, created a regional and a national narrative that Wake Forest is a place that people aren’t surprised when we go to bowl games.”

Wake Forest returns 14 starters from a team that finished 8-5 and beat Texas A&M in a wild Belk Bowl. All five starters on the offensive line are back and have grown up after they once were one of the most porous units in the country, struggling to protect then-quarterback John Wolford and to open holes for the running backs. This year’s group is considered one of the best — if not the best — in the ACC.

“We took a long-term approach to it,” Clawson said. “We did not have an O-line when we got there. We had to play those guys before they were ready. … And we just tried to stay positive with them, and we thought at some point the accumulation of all those reps and all that experience, that there would be a payoff.”

That time might have arrived. Only once before have the Demon Deacons made three straight bowl trips (2006-08) and they’ve never won three in three years. The push to do that begins Sept. 1 at Tulane.

“I think right now internally the expectation is we want to be a perennial bowl team,” Clawson said. “We want to compete for championships, and we want the regional and the national media to view our program that way. And having said that, progress in this league is not easy. I mean, this division and this conference is really good football, and I think the big thing last year, not only did we get back to a bowl and win eight games, but we beat some really good football teams. I don’t feel like our season in any way was a fluke.

“I don’t think anybody on our staff, in our locker room is satisfied with what we did,” he added, “and we think there’s a greater ceiling to what we can accomplish, and we’re excited to prove that.”