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Blue Chip Depth Chart Analysis: Clemson at Syracuse Preview

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Clemson extended their win streak over Wake Forest to eight games. Now they’ll have a short week as they try to win their fifth straight against Syracuse.

Pittsburgh v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Clemson picked up another win this past Saturday thanks to a quick start and a defense that prevented Wake Forest from doing much of anything before garbage time. The Tigers have a quick turnaround with a long trip to Syracuse, NY for a Friday night game. After that they’ll get the bye week for which Swinney and team are more than ready.

There were a handful of Tigers that played very well against Wake Forest, but one I’d especially like to call-out is AJ Terrell. The former-five star recruit broke the two-deep for the first time last week so we discussed him briefly before the contest. He held up very well in coverage (this was NOT his first appearance in a game, but he stood out nonetheless). On one particular play, he was put on an island with a receiver. QB Hinton challenged him with a good throw, but the WR couldn’t get any separation from Terrell, who tipped the ball away. Kudos AJ!

Before we delve into our Syracuse analysis a few thoughts on other teams in the ACC. My pre-season picks almost went up in flames this weekend. Miami, who I’ve been high on, blew a late lead to Florida State, but with less than a two minutes remaining, they drove down the field and scored the winning TD to break a seven-game losing streak to their bitter in-state rival. The Seminoles now sit at a paltry 1-3. With a cupcake game cancelled, they have to win-out just to reach eight victories. It’s a reminder that success like we’re enjoying is never a given. Don’t forget to enjoy it.

The other game that caught my eye was Thursday’s Louisville at NC State game. As you might expect, I was disappointed to see NC State outplay Louisville and earn the victory. Firstly, it heaps mud on my face after I picked them to lose 4-5 games in the pre-season and celebrated their loss to the Gamecocks with a virtual twitter parade celebrating my own genius. Secondly, it sets up a defacto ACC Atlantic Championship game when Clemson visits Raleigh. Their other remaining ACC opponents include Pittsburgh, Boston College, Wake Forest, and UNC. It’s hard to think they’ll lose two of those. If Clemson loses in Raleigh, they’ll almost certainly miss the ACC Championship Game and likely the playoff. Scary!

Now, let’s jump into our analysis for the Syracuse contest this Friday.

We've divided the offense and the defense into three portions each. For the offense, the starting QB, the starting O-line, and the two-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall offense rating. Similarly on defense, the two-deep at D-line, linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating, regardless of scheme.

This shouldn’t have to be said, but there are always players who over-perform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Lamar Jackson) as well as those who underperform their star ratings. As such, this is only one portion of the analysis we will publish on the upcoming game, but we hope it’s an especially informative one.

Notes specific to this analysis:

  • Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson are now listed as “OR” for second-strong on the updated depth chart. Previously, Zerrick Cooper was listed as the second-string QB.

Syracuse is 3-3 following last week’s win over Pittsburgh. They’ll need to upset one of Clemson, FSU, Miami, or Louisville to have a chance to make a bowl game thanks to an early season loss to Middle Tennessee State. Their first shot at one of those upsets comes at home on a short week. With Kelly Bryant rolling his ankle on Saturday and a long trek up to New York for the Tigers, the short week would seem to benefit the Orange human beings from Syracuse. Let’s take a look at the offenses:

Offensively, Syracuse offers a step up in competition as far as raw recruited talent compared to Wake Forest. Their offensive line starts three former three-star recruits compared to just one for the Deacons, and their skill position players are a tick above where the Deacons charted out. Their offensive talent level is slightly higher than last season as well.

At QB, Eric Dungey is 8th in the country in total passing yards with 1,802 (9 TDs, 4 INTs). 729 of those yards have come from connections with top receiver Steve Ismael. He’s the Orange’s biggest weapon and the key player for the Tigers to neutralize. Dungey can also run the ball pretty well. He has 325 yards on the ground so far this season (for reference, Bryant has 401 and both have taken 14 sacks).

The Orange run an up-tempo offense that relies heavily on the passing game. They rank 13th in the nation in passing offense compared to just 86th in rushing offense. That’s good news for them, as running against Clemson’s D-line that starts four eventual NFL draft picks is a tough task.

With Dungey and Ishmael, Syracuse has the best passing attack Clemson has seen since Louisville. Clemson’s defensive backs appear improved this season though. There is great versatility among the DBs. Ryan Carter has played cornerback and nickel. K’Von Wallace has played safety and cornerback. It may just be talent blossoming, but it seems having Mike Reed coach cornerbacks and Mickey Conn coach safeties is working out very well. The matchup between Clemson’s DBs and Syracuse’s passing game will be the good on good battle to watch in this one.

The talent disparity between these two defenses is vast. The majority of Syracuse’s linebackers and DBs are former two-star recruits. As one might expect, their passing defense has been mediocre to poor. They’ve allowed 226 passing yards yard per game - good for 68th in the country - against a schedule that includes the passing offenses of Central Connecticut, Central Michigan, and LSU.

This is great news for Kelly Bryant who struggled for stretches against Wake Forest. After a hot start to the game, Bryant lost a fumble and later misread cover two zone defense and thew an ugly interception into triple-coverage. He exited the game after rolling his ankle shortly thereafter. The Syracuse defense offers a good opportunity for bounce back. They’re tied for 113th in the nation with just 6 team sacks this year (Clemson has 22), so even if Bryant can’t scramble like usual, he should be fairly safe in the pocket.

Prediction

The timing of this matchup is a bit tough. The Tigers have played six straight games without a bye and the short week steals a day of injury recovery from Kelly Bryant. Fortunately, Syracuse is just 60th in the S&P+ ratings. Clemson likely can get away with “turtling up” and relying on their defense to win this game, however if possible, this would be a good opportunity to stretch their wings and develop the passing game as they’ll absolutely need a strong passing attack to beat Alabama, let alone Georgia or Washington (all top five rushing defenses).

If Clemson decides to open things up, they could cover the three touchdown spread, but if Bryant or backup QBs struggle they should be able to play conservatively and rely on the defense to secure a 7-0 start before the bye week.