The ACC foe that has given Clemson the most trouble the last two years - their sole ACC loss in that time - is Syracuse. That’s where Clemson will head this week. Following the defensive collapse they had against Maryland, the matchup with Clemson doesn’t have the intrigue it did in the preseason, but it’s the night game on ABC nevertheless. It’s also Clemson’s first road test and to help us preview the it, we spoke with John Cassillo, the editor of Nunes Magician which is SB Nation’s Syracuse site. You can follow him on Twitter here and check out their site here.
STS: Let’s get right to it. I was pretty high on Syracuse this year. With the players they brought back plus all the hype around Tommy DeVito and a schedule getting a little easier (by swapping Notre Dame for Maryland), I felt Syracuse would match or at least come close to the 10 wins they earned last year. Losing to Maryland doesn’t necessarily end those hopes, but the way they lost may indicate that it isn’t happening. This isn’t the de facto Atlantic Division championship game like I had hoped and expected when I booked my travel. Who is this Syracuse team and what are adjusted expectations now?
Every team can have a bad Saturday, and I don’t think that the blowout loss to Maryland is indicative of what we see from Syracuse all season… however, think this group is going to need a little more time to round into form than some (self included) thought. This Syracuse team is far more reliant on the three big changes from the offseason — replacing linebacker experience, replacing offensive line experience, and plugging in Tommy DeVito at quarterback -- than anticipated. While I am optimistic things will click, it may just take a month.
I picked 9-3 before the season, and while that may still be in play, 7-5 is potentially a more realistic goal now. That’s still fine given the changes mentioned above, where this program was prior to last year and the talent level on the roster.
STS: Syracuse brought back their entire secondary including safety Andre Cisco who led the nation in interceptions as a freshman last season. Despite that, they seemed to get shredded by former VT QB Josh Jackson (296 yrds, 3 TD, 1 INT). I know there are issues at linebacker, but is the secondary as good as we thought? As an aside, is Josh Jackson good now?
The dirty secret of the secondary last year was that they were very reliant on the pass rush up front, causing rushed throws and allowing them to take some more risks. When routes have time to develop, they’ll get beat a lot more easily.
That said, almost every completion was in front of them on Saturday, which has a ton to do with the linebacker struggles. SU doesn’t really have the experience at that position to play a 4-3 right now, so they’ve largely been in a 4-2-5. But the ‘2’ in that scenario -- Andrew Armstrong and Lakiem Williams -- bit on pretty much every play action fake against Maryland, setting up Jackson’s big day. I think Jackson’s good in this system, but the top of the Big Ten East provides a stiffer test than what we put up against him.
STS: Eric Dungey played some gutsy games against us over the years. At least in those games, he seemed to be the heart and soul of the offense. Who has or seems most likely to fill that leadership and/or star power void on the offense?
Over the course of the season, DeVito has to be that guy, but the most likely right now is probably senior running back Moe Neal. In previous seasons, Neal averaged close to five yards per carry (more last year, actually) and he has some breakaway speed, even up the middle. He’s gotten more involved in the passing game this year and could be DeVito’s safety valve as he tries to get more comfortable. That should provide more touches, and challenge defensive backs to pull him down in the open field.
STS: When Clemson has the ball on offense, what individual or position matchup gives you the most concern? Which, if any, gives you some optimism?
Given what occurred on the ground last week, and how Maryland used play action to embarrass our linebackers, Travis Etienne’s absolutely the big concern here. He was virtually unstoppable against Syracuse last year (27 carries, 203 yards, 3 TDs) -- especially once the Tigers started leaning on him to power the second half offense. So not looking forward to seeing him again.
This has less to do with any lack of faith in Clemson’s offensive line and more to do with the fact that I think the Orange’s pass rush is far better than what was displayed last week. I’m hoping SU’s defensive staff saved some things for this game once that one got out of hand so quickly, and cautiously bet on the Orange getting a few sacks on Lawrence. He (and more importantly, the offensive line) will adjust to the pressure over the course of the game, however.
STS: When Syracuse has the ball on offense, what individual or position matchup do you think the Orange can take advantage of?
Can the answer be none?
I don’t think Syracuse’s offense has any advantages matching up with Clemson’s defense. That said, the Orange run game should look better than what we saw last week when the quick early deficit really took them out of their game plan. Neal’s key there, but Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard are likely going to be used a lot to help keep the pressure off DeVito to make every play. We’ll see if that winds up producing meaning anything, or if we’re just running into a brick wall.
STS: The Tigers opened as 24 point favorites. What are your thoughts on the spread and how the game will actually play out?
The spread’s pretty fair given what we’ve seen. Clemson hasn’t needed to try all that hard to beat its two opponents thus far, and Syracuse hasn’t exactly inspired all of the confidence in the world with its performances through two weeks. Finally getting a home game should be a nice energy boost for the Orange, and I expect a very loud and packed Dome for the team. That’s probably not going to suddenly fix the linebacker troubles, or the current pace issues on offense, though.
After two straight years of Syracuse creating some issues by hanging around against Clemson, the Tigers manage to earn an early lead against the Orange behind Etienne and the run game, and then keep SU at arm’s length for the rest of the game. Could see a final score in the realm of 45-21, possibly courtesy of a backdoor cover if the line hangs around 24.5. That final margin’s not because I think Maryland’s better than Clemson (obviously not). I just think Dabo doesn’t bother absolutely burying teams if he doesn’t have to.