I was once told that “rock bottom” is a false concept. The way this man figured, the bottom is an infinite set of cliffs. You’re always free to pick yourself up at the bottom, dust yourself and walk right back off.
Last week the Orange lost to Liberty University, giving the Flames (an FCS team until 2018, and not a great one) the program’s first win over a Power Five conference team. That, Syracuse, would be rock bottom.
Now things look worse, with the Orange historic underdogs against the Clemson Tigers. SP+ paints a similarly grim portrait, Dino Babers squad is ranked 105th overall and 110th in offense. Meanwhile, Clemson sits at #2. This, Syracuse, could be walking off the next cliff.
If the point spread makes it look like Clemson is playing a paycheck game, it reflects a reality on the ground. It’s hard to believe Babers coached a ten-win team just two years ago. This is closer to an FCS roster than any ACC team should be. Opt-outs and injuries have massacred the Orange. Last week Syracuse had less than sixty players suiting up, well under the FCS scholarship limit. Of those, almost half were freshmen. It’s easy to see a way that the low numbers could impact the teams ability to prepare for this week.
There just isn’t much to build on for the offense right now. To paraphrase John McKay, they’re balanced offensively. They can’t run, but they can’t pass the ball either.
Although he’s yet to tally three hundred yards rushing, true freshman RB Sean Tucker has been a bright spot this season. Tucker is a tough physical runner, with the ability to keep an offense that’s struggled on first downs on schedule. He has both of the Orange’s running touchdowns on the year.
As a true freshman, Tucker could be a good player for Syracuse for years to come. He’s just not enough to carry the team, particularly behind an offensive line that can’t reliably open holes for him. It’s hard to see Tucker (or any Orange RB) finding many running lanes against a Clemson defense giving up less than a hundred yards per game. The quarterbacks runs a bit of option in this offense, but none of Syracuse’s passers have proven to be a threat on the ground.
When this offense is humming, the running game sets up the passing game. Orange receivers are split out extremely wide and targeted on deep shots, RPO’s and play-action passes designed to make defenses cover the entire field. Defensive backs are left in no win situations, isolated in space against speedy receivers and still too far away to do much for the defense in the run game. The threat of play-action (or needing to defend the run part of an RPO) helps to slow down opposing pass rushes. It’s beautiful when it all comes together.
It couldn’t be much further from coming together at the moment, and the engine is belching smoke and gas. If, and likely when, Clemson is able to stop the run without overcommitting things are going to get ugly for the Orange. The Tigers are perfectly happy to sit in a dime package all night and send pressure after a floundering passer. The Syracuse offensive line is nowhere near good enough to keep the Tigers pass rush at bay without the threat of the run.
Preseason starting QB (and former highly ranked recruit) Tommy DeVito was playing poorly before being injured. This weeks starting QB, Rex Culpepper, has a completion percentage well south of fifty percent.
To be fair to Culpepper, he’s behind some the worst pass blocking in the country. Syracuse has given up the most sacks in the nation (24) this season. They’re blocking about as well as you’d expect a team suiting up seven scholarship offensive linemen to block.
Attempts to slow the pass rush with the screen game have been largely unsuccessful, and Culpepper has yet to show much as a scrambler.
Culpepper is better at throwing across the middle of the field than to the outside, where a lack of arm strength can get him into trouble. He’s capable of beating teams that blow coverages, but has yet to complete 50% of his passes this year and didn’t see the field at all in the Orange’s lone victory. Simply put, Babers and co. can’t rely on throwing the ball to move the chains.
Wide Receiver Taj Harris is the best player on this offense. He leads the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns and leads in all three comfortably. We’re also unsure of his status this Saturday after a broadcast saw him flicking off the camera against Liberty.
Harris has been notably upset on the field this year, pounding his fist on the grass after blown plays. I don’t begrudge the young man his frustration either, this has been a year from hell for his team. But Harris’ absence Saturday would put Syracuse even further behind the eight ball.
Beyond Harris Syracuse has Anthony Queeley, Nykeim Johnson, and no other receiver with more than five catches. Backup RB Jawhar Jordan has shown some versatility as a receiver, and both tight ends have touchdown receptions on the year. The tight ends and Jordan have also combined to catch the ball eleven times. There’s next to nothing in terms of proven weapons.
What are we even doing here? This isn’t so much a conference game as an attempt to technically complete a contract. Yes, if you look at it on paper, Clemson is going to play the Syracuse Orange on Saturday.
But in reality this is a damned and doomed roster, wandering through a Power Five schedule in obligation to contracts signed years ago. The Tigers need this win, both athletic departments needs this game to happen, the conference needs TV inventory, and so it’s going to happen. This could easily be another 73-7. I just hope no one gets hurt.