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Assessing the Threat: Clemson at Syracuse

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Clemson will make their first road trip of the 2019 season when they revisit the site of their last ACC loss to face Syracuse in the Carrier Dome on September 14th.

Connecticut v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Overview:

2018 Record: 10-3 (6-2)
Returning Starters (via Athlon): 13/22 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Syracuse earned 10 wins last season for the first time since 2001. They hadn’t eclipsed 8 wins since 2001 and hadn’t been over 7 wins since joining the ACC. It was a banner year that nearly included a win over Clemson and Atlantic Division title if not for Clemson’s back-up QB Chase Brice completing a pass to Tee Higgins on fourth down. The emotional win was punctuated with the sack of the year:

The victory over Syracuse was the turning point for Clemson’s season as the Tigers won their 10 remaining games - including three postseason games - by 20+. It was also the de facto ACC Atlantic Division Championship game. The matchup figures to be once again decide the division.

Fortunately for Clemson, the speedy QB Eric Dungey, who led Syracuse in carries as he extended plays and frustrated defensives, is replaced with an inexperienced pocket passer - Tommy DeVito. DeVito is a redshirt sophomore from NJ. He had offers from Boston College and Maryland as well as several small schools. Syracuse depended on Dungey’s legs for much of their rushing attack last season. He totalled 754 rushing yards, 15 rushing touchdowns, and led the team in carries. They return just two offensive lineman, but that new line will need them to provide running lanes for a traditional rushing attack if DeVito is to shine.

Syracuse’s defense returns seven starters including both CBs and safeties. Sophomore safety Andre Cisco was the ACC Rookie of the Year last season and led the nation (tied) with seven interceptions. They lose Chris Slayton from their defensive line, but return the three other starters. The defense should be stout enough to compensate for a slight offensive regression, it is just a matter of how slight the offensive regression turns out to be as they break in a retooled OL and replace their QB.

Wagner v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Key Threats for Clemson:

The Tigers will be coming off one of their toughest games of the season (Texas A&M) as they head to upstate New York for this matchup.

Dabo’s teams typically show major growth from the first week of the season to the final game. This game is only week three and the Tigers green defensive line will still be getting their feet wet. While Syracuse doesn’t have Dungey behind the helm to run them ragged, they’ll surely test the Tigers’ discipline with screen passes and their up-tempo scheme. Clemson’s depth - developed through strong recruiting and early playing - may not be there this early in the season, especially along the defensive line that graduated their five most important players. Syracuse can use tempo to take advantage.

If Cuse’s offensive line can get a push and allow them to establish a running game with senior RB Moe Neal, Tommy DeVito will have a chance to shine. It’ll also allow them to run more plays, adding to their tempo-attack.

Even if that happens, it’ll be hard for their defense to grind Clemson’s firepowered offense to a halt. Syracuse needs takeaways. Just think about the game Clemson lost to Pittsburgh and when they nearly lost to NCSU. Each of those games was marked by turnovers. The only other losses Clemson has suffered in recent years came when their starting QB got hurt or against Alabama. Last year, Syracuse finished 5th in the Nation with 13 interceptions. With all four starters in the secondary returning and a defensive line that could get some pressure on Lawrence, they have as much a shot to make that game-changing defensive play as anyone Clemson will face.

Syracuse loses all their starters at linebacker, but with Renfrow gone, no real receiving threat at TE, and Amari Rodgers injured, Clemson’s intermediate passing game may be one of the weaker parts of the offense and thus not ideal to take advantage of this potential Syracuse weakness. They’ll need Travis Etienne to shine to take advantage here. If he can break through the defensive line, there’s some big gain potential if linebackers are out of position. Cuse’s strong secondary will make deep passes more challenging so a big day for Etienne may be the difference in the game.

Final Assessment:

Syracuse opens their season with two road games. They play Hugh Freeze’s Liberty Flames in Lynchburg, VA and then travel to Maryland to play the Terps. If they’re 2-0 and coming into their home opener against THE team to beat in the ACC, it’ll be a raucous atmosphere for what we would have to presume to be the Atlantic Division title game. As such, it would be the biggest game of the season for both teams.

Interestingly, there are a couple of weakness vs. weakness and strength vs. strength matchups in this one. Syracuse turns over much of their O-line while Clemson has even more turnover on their D-line. Syracuse loses all their starters at linebacker, but Clemson doesn’t have a true slot receiver or a pass-catching TE to beat them over the middle.

Clemson’s lanky deep threat WRs going up against one of the better DB groups in the conference will be fun to watch. Alabama and Notre Dame couldn’t handle them, so while Syracuse should put up a fight, Clemson’s talent has the clear edge. Likewise, Clemson’s offensive line should be strong despite losing Mitch Hyatt and Justin Falcinelli and will be going up against one of the stronger D-lines in the conference.

This is probably Clemson’s toughest challenge in the ACC and potentially the whole year, but after a loss and a close call each of the last two years, they certainly won’t be sleeping on the now-proven Orangemen.

Syracuse needs their offensive line to come through in a big way and allow them some offensive balance. They’ll need their RB corps to pick-up a lot of slack with QB Eric Dungey gone. They’ll also need QB Tommy DeVito to live up to the hype on a huge stage and connect on some big plays. Lastly, they need their secondary to create a turnover or two. That’s a lot of things they need to go right. S&P+ only gives them a 9% chance to win the game (the S&P+ under-rates Syracuse by having them #7 in the ACC). While 9% feels too low, it’s not too far off, because stopping Clemson’s dynamic offense may be completely infeasible for any team without elite-level talent.