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Syracuse at Clemson Football Preview: Q&A with Nunes Magician

John Cassillo, managing editor of SB Nation’s Nunes Magician, joins us to preview this Saturday’s game between the Tigers and the Orange in Clemson.

Syracuse v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Clemson returns home to take on the struggling and injury-ravaged Syracuse Orange this Saturday at noon Eastern Time. The Orange are 1-4 (1-3 in the ACC), most recently coming off an embarrassing 38-21 home loss against Liberty. Clemson enters the game as extremely heavy favorites. It’s a far cry from where Syracuse was a couple of years ago when they were a real thorn in Clemson’s side.

John Cassillo from SB Nation’s Syracuse site, Nunes Magician, was kind enough to answer some questions for us about the Orange ahead of Saturday’s football game. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Tom: So, what’s going on with Syracuse? A couple of years ago, they had a 10-win season and seemed to be on the rise. Dino Babers was an emerging star among coaches, and the Orange had given Clemson fits two years in a row. Now they’re 1-4 after a disappointing 5-7 finish last season. I know they’re battling a ton of injuries, including a season-ender to star safety Andre Cisco, and another fairly serious one to starting QB Joe Pesci Tommy DeVito suffered in the Oct. 10 game against Duke. But that can’t be the only reason for this bad start, which includes a blowout loss at home to Liberty last Saturday. What else is plaguing the Orange?

John: It’s a combination of things — some of which are more correctable than others. Syracuse hired new offensive and defensive coordinators this off-season, and the pandemic stopped us from getting a lot of in-person time to implement those changes. Our top two running backs, Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard, opted out for COVID reasons. We’ve lost at least 15 significant contributors to injury.

You can potentially overcome some of those issues, but if you’re recruiting at the level Syracuse does, it’s nearly impossible to get past all of them. The main thing that’s kept us in games so far has been turnovers, but without an offense to convert those into points (something made worse by DeVito’s injury now), it’s nice window dressing on an otherwise rough year.

The fact that our original schedule was a lot easier than this one shouldn’t be lost on anyone, either. But that only helps explain the W-L record. Not the unheard of amount of injuries. I would assume Syracuse’s strength and conditioning staff is first out the door this off-season, since injuries and medical DQs have been a running theme.

Tom: What’s the outlook for Babers? He stayed at Syracuse after being a hot name in the coaching circles a couple of years ago, and now his stock has to have taken a nosedive. How much more of a leash does he have with the Orange?

John: Given the extension Babers signed after 2018 and the unique challenges COVID has presented for this season, there’s no way he’s going anywhere in 2020, even if this team goes (gulp) 1-10. Especially without ticket and concession sales, Syracuse doesn’t have the money to pay Babers’ buyout, a contract for a new coach, plus new and competitive salaries for an entire staff, so this off-season just isn’t the time to make that sort of move. That’s without considering the recruiting ramifications too, which would be harder to recover from this year than they would be in a normal cycle with more in-person visits.

However, Babers won’t be able to coast forever on 2018’s successes. A manageable schedule in 2021 should yield a bowl trip even for a “rebuilding” team next year. If the Orange can’t hit at least six wins, I don’t think you can rationalize keeping him around after one winning season in six years.

Tom: Assuming that DeVito is out for this game, what should we expect to see out of backup QB Daunte Rex Culpepper and the Syracuse offense, both in terms of scheme and other personnel?

John: You’re assuming right, as Rex will get the start once again. Rex makes quicker decisions than DeVito does, but is also less accurate and lacks the arm strength of the injured starter, too. Though he threw three touchdown passes vs. Liberty last week, he was still pretty off-target, and the Flames provided a lot of single-coverage situations that the offense simply failed to capitalize on as well. Obviously, that’s not going to work against Clemson.

So expect a pretty conservative passing approach with most balls thrown within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and hopefully greater use of the tight ends. But, ideally, Rex is throwing the ball no more than 25 times and we’re leaning on the run game to end this likely drubbing as quickly as possible.

Holy Cross v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Tom: On the other side of the ball, Syracuse still seems to be able to force a lot of turnovers, having already recovered eight fumbles and eight interceptions. They are No. 1 in the country in turnover margin (+11), despite their other struggles. So, how have they been able to manage this (especially with the ball-hawking Cisco out since after the second game of the season)? Related to this, which defensive position groups are their biggest strengths? And which are their biggest weaknesses?

John: The transition to a 3-3-5 scheme has been a welcome change, and one Syracuse probably should’ve made years ago based on the personnel. One of the few real places where the Orange have depth is the secondary, and they’ve been able to plug various players — including top ball hawks Cisco and Trill Williams — into the “rover” role, which frees them up to create havoc and opportunities for takeaways.

While the secondary is deep, it’s also fairly green at this point, with veterans Cisco and Eric Coley missing extensive time. That’s led to a lot of freshmen seeing snaps and taking their lumps in coverage. Everyone’s playing a big risk/big reward style of football. Against a team like Clemson, that’s probably going to leave a lot of holes.

That sounds like a knock on the secondary, but the real concern comes from the linebacker spot. Everyone there is pretty young also, and not completely acclimated to their roles in the 3-3-5. As you may have noticed while watching tape from the last two weeks (wouldn’t wish doing so on anyone), they’re frequently out of position when trying to stop the run. That’s not a recipe for success against any rushing attack — especially a back like Travis Etienne.

Tom: Given Clemson’s eye-popping 73-7 win over Georgia Tech last Saturday, and Syracuse’s struggles and injuries, Clemson is currently favored by a spread of...45.5 points! In 2018, I would not have guessed this is where things would be two years later. I also would not have guessed a number of other things about 2020, but I digress. Anyway, I won’t ask you for an official prediction, but which matchups, if any, do you think are areas where the Orange could give the Tigers some problems and perhaps make this game a bit closer than the sports books are indicating?

John: I can’t spot one. Haha…maybe our punting game (Nolan Cooney was the Ray Guy Punter of the Week) forces Clemson to just deal with a longer field than they normally would. But the run defense issues alone are enough to make me believe that 45.5 points is a conservative estimate on the spread in this one. I’d have a hard time betting on the Orange until that line gets to about 56 points.

A big thank-you to John for sharing some insights on Syracuse. You can head over to Nunes Magician to see my answers to his questions.