WINSTON-SALEM, NC – When Dave Clawson compared his roster to that of Clemson upon his arrival at Wake Forest in 2014, he admits now that he had a hard time finding anyone that was capable of playing for the Tigers.

Nine seasons later, the talent gap has shrunk considerably. But it hasn’t completely disappeared.

It showed on Saturday when Sam Hartman passed 21st-ranked Wake to the brink of victory against its traditional Atlantic Division nemesis by throwing a school-record 6 touchdown passes, including 1 in overtime.

In the end, though, the result was a familiar one for both teams.

The Deacons still haven’t found a way to get over the hump against Clemson and the No. 5-ranked Tigers are still the team to beat in the ACC.

At least for another week.

In many respects, Clemson’s 51-45 double overtime victory at Truist Field was an exercise in the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Coach Dabo Swinney has never lost to Wake, a streak that has now reached 14 straight wins. And when it comes to close games, the Tigers usually end up coming out on top. They’re now 33-7 in 1-possession games since 2011.

There was at least one new twist to this latest nail-biter. Instead of having to rely almost primarily on their defense to pull them through, it was much-maligned quarterback DJ Uiagaleli that put the Tigers on his shoulders and carried them to the finish line.

Uiagalelei matched Hartman pass-for-pass, going 26-of-41 for 371 yards and 5 touchdowns without a turnover.

His game-winning 21-yard strike to tight end Davis Allen in the second extra possession was an exclamation point on by far the most significant performance of his Clemson career. It was also a positive development for the Tigers moving forward, despite the warning signs given off by a defense that got burned for 447 yards and 45 points.

“We grew up in a lot of areas tonight,” Swinney said afterward. “You hate games like that. But sometimes you need a game like that to really solidify your confidence and your belief, especially coming off a year like we had last year where we could hardly score 21 points.”

Swinney might sound more like a country preacher at a tent revival than a football coach when he talks about belief.

But in this case, there’s something to it. That showed at the end of an intense fourth quarter and through all four possessions of overtime.

It started with Swinney’s belief in placekicker BJ Potter.

Instead of forcing the issue by going for it on 4th-and-4 from the Wake 35, trailing by 3 with just over 4 minutes remaining, the Clemson coach opted to attempt a tying field goal that Potter delivered from 52 yards out.

He then had belief that his defense, which had given up points on each of the Deacons’ first 4 second-half possessions, would get the stop it needed to extend the game. It did.

The confidence carried into the overtime. While it seemed as though Wake was playing as if it was hoping to win, the Tigers executed as though they expected it.

“It’s culture,” Swinney said. “That’s probably an overused word, I guess, but it is culture. …We have an instilled, unshakable belief in our DNA and that’s been incorporated for years now.”

Wake, by contrast, is still working to get to that point.

Clawson has made incredible strides, including an Atlantic Division title last season and a roster that includes several future NFL Draft picks.

But while his program has long since shed its former identity of “Little Wake Forest,” you can’t help shake the feeling that – Saturday’s close call notwithstanding – the playing field on which the Deacons and Tigers coexist isn’t exactly a level one.

In the four previous meetings prior to this one, Clemson had outscored Wake by a whopping 214-46 margin. Given the nature of this series and the fact that many of the Deacons’ top players are in their final college season, it could be awhile before they get another chance this good to knock off the ACC’s Goliath.

That’s why this missed opportunity was so painful for All-ACC center Michael Jurgens, who had to choke back emotion as he described his postgame feelings.

“It hurts,” he said. “It always hurts. But I’m proud of the way we played.”

As he should be.

The Deacons battled back from a 14-0 hole to start the game, terrorized a Clemson defense that, while banged up, is still one of the nation’s best and took the ACC’s preseason favorite to the brink.

But in the end, even that wasn’t enough to get over the hump and bring about a change in the dynamic of either this series or the conference standings.

The Tigers still own the Deacons and until someone actually beats them, they’re still the team to beat in the ACC.