These truly are the glory days of Clemson football. Now we are not only seeing wins stacked upon wins, we are also seeing at least a few of those “weapon of mass destruction” type games when Clemson eviscerates somebody. Most recently, that somebody was Georgia Tech, and the Yellow Jackets might not be the last victim of the 2020 campaign.
Now a beleaguered Syracuse team comes to town smarting from a beating at the hands of (checks notes) Liberty. If there is a silver lining here for Dino Babers, the Tigers will have more bench to empty with a home game than a road game’s shortened travel roster. This is likely why we have seen some of the most emphatic beat downs of the Dabo era on the road vs. in Death Valley.
Last week I mentioned how it wasn’t that long ago when going to Atlanta was walking into a mine field for the Tigers. Syracuse was giving this program some issues as recently as 2018, when they provided the only real scare in an otherwise dominant season. However, it seems like the departure of Eric Dungey was akin to the departure of Matt Ryan to the Boston College program: it just isn’t the same.
The Orange have a heap of other issues, mainly a depleted roster well short of the 85 scholarship standard. Starting quarterback Tommy DeVito, who I have never been very high on anyway, has been hurt. For all the jokes about the Florida State offensive line, Syracuse’s has probably been even worse the last two seasons. I’m not sure what offers Coach Babers had after their 10 win season in 2018, but it is looking more and more like he missed his window to ascend to a better football job.
Clemson defense vs. Syracuse offense: Clemson’s 2017 defense was perhaps the best since 2014 if you look back at it. Kelly Bryant wasn’t a bad quarterback, but the offense had a definite ceiling compared to the Watson and Lawrence-run units. That team had to lean on defense more than any except the 2014 team with Cole Stoudt starting since the Morris spread system was put in before the 2011 season. The Orange were the one team that really made that defense look bad, catching the Tigers not lined up several times, and creating multiple busted assignments with their tempo and execution.
That 2017 game would happen to be the last loss this program has suffered in the ACC. While Syracuse has the same philosophy as back then, they don’t have Dungey behind center, and their offensive line has gotten so much worse. They can’t run the ball, and therefore find themselves behind the chains consistently.
Meanwhile, the Tiger defense is coming off its best performance of the year to date. After the one bad play given up by Goodrich on a deep post, the Tigers took an offense averaging well over 400 yards a game and completely stuffed it, even with second- and third-teamers added in. Several of the young freshmen flashed scary talent, the latest being SAM Trenton Simpson. Mike Jones, Jr. has been very good so far this year, but Simpson is showing that the beat is going to go on at the SAM from Dorian O’Daniel and Isaiah Simmons and into the future.
There is a serious mismatch up front in this game, more pronounced than the ones vs. Miami and Georgia Tech. I don’t envy Rex Culpepper or any other Orange signal caller who gets thrown to the wolves on Saturday. Culpepper has been around a long time and will perhaps be steady enough to avoid complete disaster, but he is going to need that offensive line to play way better than it has.
Clemson offense vs. Syracuse defense: Last week notwithstanding, I definitely feel that the Syracuse defense has been the stronger part of their team this season. Their defense gave them a chance to beat UNC in the opener, but their offense was hapless in the red zone, then hapless everywhere else, and they got worn down. Defense had them on the brink of beating Pittsburgh if not for an offense that produced just 10 first downs the entire game. Now their defense is so ragged out that they gave up over 600 yards to a struggling Duke offense, then 520 to Liberty, with most of the damage coming from the run. Travis Etienne should be licking his chops after a relatively quiet game against a GT defense geared to stop him.
One of Etienne’s highlight games of his career was the 2018 game after Trevor Lawrence went down. He had a career high 27 carries for over 200 yards and 3 TDs, helping Chase Brice avoid the upset. I seriously doubt Travis will touch the ball more than maybe 12 times this week, but he should be able to cash in on some big runs against the Orange. Frankly, the Tigers need to build confidence in the ground game which has lagged behind the passing attack so far this season.
Syracuse does have one of the best safeties in the country in Andre Cisco, but in a freak pre-game collision he tore his ACL and is out for the season. That was the crack in the dam that exploded into a rush of flood water for the Orange. They have not been the same without their leader in the back and were already having to shoulder too heavy a load thanks to anemic offense.
Clemson should have its way with the Orange on the ground even if they put 10 guys in the box, which they can’t. I expect a short day for Trevor and Travis, and hopefully an extended run for D.J. Uiagalelei, who was held out of last week’s blowout. Guys like Joseph Ngata and E.J. Williams need more reps as they either work back into game shape or progress into a larger role in the rotation. The Tigers are still working on offensive line depth, but it appears the rotation is growing, especially with Walker Parks getting earlier snaps last week. We got our first real glimpse of the raw potential of Ajou Ajou last week, so hopefully he will get a chance to build on that success.
Special Teams: Clemson rebounded from a rough night on FG protection against Miami, albeit with very limited opportunities against GT (if you don’t count extra points, LOL). The Tigers are so strong that just being solid in this phase is all the team really needs, but who doesn’t love some explosive plays in the return game? Perhaps we will see one this week, though kick return will likely have one, maybe two chances all day. I’d love to see Etienne get another crack at a punt return.
Overall: This game has a 40+ point spread and that might even be generous. Syracuse would be in trouble at full strength, but this version of the Orange functions way below that. I tend to call these games a “name your score” game where Clemson can basically decide how bad they want it to be, barring defensive touchdowns that may happen. Backups will play heavy snaps and run limited packages, but as we saw last week, even that might produce some explosive plays. But, if you ever get to feeling a little bad about it, just remember 2017.
Clemson 59-Syracuse 3