With a cruise control type win under its belt against Wake Forest, Dabo's squad must now shift gears and travel 800 plus miles north to the Carrier Dome to face Syracuse. Clemson is a good football team right now, and about as balanced offensively/defensively as we've seen in quite some time. Still, anytime you go on the road to face an opponent, especially an ACC foe in their first conference game ever, you tend to worry a little bit. This was on display two weeks ago when Clemson sleep walked through the first half against NC State. A few defensive stands and a better offensive performance in the second half helped Clemson ultimately win that game, albeit in rather ugly fashion.
"Just thinking out loud, there’s the Alamo Dome in San Antonio is a smaller dome where they play basketball," Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said, recalling places similar he’s been to Monday. "The fans are right on top of you there. That’s probably as close – I’ve never been up there so it’s hard to compare." "You just have to get the good depth perception on things, but it’s only an issue if you make it an issue. It’s still pitching and catching and throwing. We’re not going to make any excuses. It doesn’t matter where we play. If we play in a parking lot – gravel, rocks. It doesn’t matter."
Fast forward to this weekend and Clemson is faced with another intriguing challenge. It's Syracuse's first game in the ACC, they are coming off a bye, and they have the luxury of playing in a loud dome with fans dubbing this game their Super Bowl (It's homecoming and they expect a very good turnout). Clemson can simply not afford to start off with another mediocre road 1st half and allow the Orange to feed off the atmosphere on display on Saturday. Clemson is better at virtually every position, but weird things seem to happen to team in that Dome. Last year the Orange throttled a 9-0 Louisville team by three touchdowns to derail their national title hopes. In 2011, Syracuse crushed a heavily favored West Virginia team by 26 points. Are these teams Clemson? Nope, and I'm not insinuating that at all. I'm simply pointing out that the Dome presents a unique challenge due to proximity, lack of any A/C (weird), and the fact that it can get loud in there for visiting teams.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said on his Sunday teleconference, the day after the Tigers (4-0, 2-0 ACC) polished off Wake Forest, 56-7. "We’ve got one win on the road under our belt, and we played OK. Hopefully we can go on this road trip and play a little better." The road to Raleigh was rocky, as Clemson’s offense needed about a half of football to get on track in a 26-14 tussle to victory. "I’m not into pretty wins or ugly wins," Swinney said. "Bottom line is just win. Find ways to win games every week. They’re all huge, and it shouldn’t matter where we play. We’ve got a job to do, regardless. I think our guys will be excited. I’ve never been there; I’m excited about going up there. I’ve seen Syracuse on TV a million times." Usually, the team doesn’t visit the opposing stadium until shortly before gametime. But the Tigers plan to do so Friday, since they’ve never played at the Carrier Dome, also the home of Syracuse basketball.
Clemson opened yesterday opened as 13.5 point favorites against Syracuse, and over the last 24 hours that number has dropped a full point to 12.5. I'm getting the sense that Vegas (and particularly bettors) don't truly trust us on the road yet because if they did that number would've shot up to 14 or 14.5 at open. The fact that Syracuse has had two weeks to prepare and get healthy is also a factor in this line and bettors are finding value in backing a home underdog whose offense has played significantly better over the last few games.
What do you need to know about Syracuse? Terrel Hunt is making waves at quarterback the past few games. Drew Allen, the Oklahoma transfer, entered the season as the starter, but after the Orange started 0-2, a change was made. Enter Terrel Hunt. Hunt, a sophomore with no previous experience prior to this year, lit up both Wagner and Tulane for yards, first downs, and touchdowns. Hunt had all day to throw in both of these games, but I think expectations need to be tempered a bit. Wagner is a 1-4 NEC team (I'm not even sure what that conference stands for?) and Tulane is a C-USA team coming off a 2-10 season. Is Hunt the real deal? It's way to early to proclaim his as the Orange's prodigal son, and there's no doubt his biggest test will come Saturday against Dabo's team.
The Syracuse University football team has to be feeling good about itself heading into its first bye week. The Orange is coming off its second straight blowout win, it has a red-hot starting quarterback, and suddenly the ACC opener in two weeks against No. 3 Clemson looks like an opportunity to measure how much progress the team has made.
It's hard to truly get a gauge on this team through their first four games. They looked mediocre against Penn State and got clobbered on the road against Northwestern (a game that got out of hand early, before the Orange scored late to make it a little more respectable). Allen was clearly not the answer at QB and Hunt appears like he is, so it will be interesting to see how much the bye week helped a still very green leader under center. On defense the Orange return six starters. The strength is at linebacker where Syracuse returns quality starts and talent, and the hope is that will continue to alleviate some inexperience along the defensive line and in the secondary. The Orange are particularly strong against the run (24th nationally) so that will present an interesting plot line for Chad Morris in what hopes to be a more productive rushing attack. Leading the Orange is head coach Scott Shafer who is in his first year as head coach after taking over for now Bills head coach Doug Marrone. Shafer is a defensive guy, and was DC there from 2009-2012 before being promoted after Marrone left for Buffalo. Shafer has a chance to make a name for himself on Saturday with the #3 Tigers coming to town in what will likely prove to be one of the most difficult tests of his early head coaching career.
But I really like the Shafer hire and the continuity that comes with it; I also like his staff, though they still have to prove themselves as recruiters. The Orange should continue to build a more consistent program, building upon Marrone's foundation, and will, within a season or two, be experienced enough to handle the ACC's higher level of competition. Based on the team's issues in 2013, however, I don't think the Orange go higher than five wins.
As for Clemson, to be successful this weekend they need better production from the safeties (where have they been?) and the wide receivers. Bryant had a solid game against NC State, but we need him to replicate that and show consistency moving forward. There is still not a clear cut #2 WR, and I don't think Humphries is the answer (have we gone downfield to him, at all?). Other questions loom. Is Hot Rod healthy, can Clemson continue to get pressure on the quarterback, and how will our inconsistent tackling on defense look? I think Clemson wins this game, but I don't think it's going to be a walk in the park. Syracuse and their fanbase have been building this game up, and why not? This is their welcome to the ACC, a program that wasn't exactly greeted with open arms when they were added. A program with a chip on its shoulder, at home as a heavy underdog, is never something you want to face. But Clemson is simply too mentally tough, more talented across the board, and better coached to lose this game. Tigers pull away in the second half and win by 14.