The ACC is as wide open as it has been in years, and Friday night's contest might provide a chance for Syracuse to slay six-time reigning champion Clemson's conference hopes once and for all.
The Tigers are unranked in the AP Poll for the first time since 2014 as they prepare to make the trip to the Carrier Dome for a Friday night showdown. Prior to the loss to NC State earlier this season, Clemson's last one to a current ACC team had come at the Carrier Dome on a Friday night back in 2017. The Tigers come in with a record of 3-2 overall and 2-1 in ACC play. The conference wins are a pair of six-point home victories over Georgia Tech and Boston College.
The Orange (3-3, 0-2 ACC) have suffered heartbreaking losses in each of the last two weeks and on the game's final snap. After falling to Florida State on a last-second field goal, the Orange fell to undefeated Wake Forest in overtime last week, 40-37. Clemson is coming off a bye week. Since the 2017 upset, Clemson has won three straight meetings against Syracuse, including a 47-21 win last year at Memorial Stadium.
Clemson at Syracuse
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Clemson -14
When Clemson Has the Ball
There was Deshaun Watson and then there was Trevor Lawrence. D.J. Uiagalelei was supposed to be the next great quarterback for the Tigers, but at the midway point in 2021, the sophomore has struggled. The California native has completed less than 55 percent of his passes this season and has just three touchdowns compared to three interceptions in five games. As a whole, the Clemson offense ranks last in the ACC in yards and points per game. Against FBS competition, the Tigers average less than 12 points per game, including just 10 in regulation. Head coach Dabo Swinney hopes the bye week will provide a spark to Uiagalelei and the entire offense. Uiagalelei has the size (6-4, 250) and all the physical tools needed for success, but the first five games this fall have been rough.
Clemson has had to replace a lot at the skill positions, but running backs Kobe Pace and Will Shipley have had a decent start to the season in the backfield. Each has rushed for more than 200 yards with seven touchdowns between them. Shipley's five touchdown runs rank sixth in the ACC. Uiagalelei has added 160 yards on the ground. Out wide, Joseph Ngata and Justyn Ross are the two players to watch. Ngata leads the team with 333 receiving yards, while Ross has three of Clemson's four touchdown catches this year.
Syracuse got off to a hot start defensively before taking a step back over the last couple of weeks. It starts with the pass rush, which leads the ACC and ranks fifth nationally with 22 sacks. Cody Roscoe is tied for the conference lead with 6.5 sacks, but the Orange have five other players with multiple sacks so far this season. Syracuse has fallen to the middle of the pack in the ACC in scoring defense after allowing 73 points over the last two weeks, but only NC State and Clemson allow fewer yards per game.
The strength for the Syracuse defense is probably at linebacker. Mikel Jones, Stefon Thompson, and Marlowe Wax can all play. Jones leads the team with 53 total stops — good for second in the ACC — while Wax and Thompson have done their best work rushing the passer. Syracuse has just six takeaways this season, and two of the team's three interceptions have come courtesy of freshman Darian Chestnut. That could be an interesting statistic to watch, as neither team gives the ball away much. Overall, the Orange are giving up the second-fewest passing yards per game among ACC teams.
When Syracuse Has the Ball
While the defense has taken a step back since the start of ACC play, the offense has found a spark in the form of quarterback Garrett Shrader. The Mississippi State transfer isn't the most polished of passers, but he has avoided critical mistakes while rushing for a combined 315 yards and four touchdowns over the last two weeks. Still, the focal point of the offense is running back Sean Tucker, the leading rusher and receiver for the Orange. With 791 rushing yards, Tucker leads the ACC. Tucker's 995 yards from scrimmage lead the nation.
Tucker (9) and Shrader (8) have combined for 17 rushing touchdowns this season, ranking second and fourth in the ACC, respectively. The Orange hope to run more than they pass on Friday, but Tucker is still the guy to watch in the aerial attack. He also leads the team with 204 receiving yards. Since Taj Harris entered the transfer portal, freshman Courtney Jackson has emerged as the top wide receiver. Over the last two weeks, he has 11 catches for 121 yards.
Although Clemson has sputtered on offense, coordinator Brent Venables' defense has been reliable as usual. Among ACC teams, only NC State yields fewer yards per game, and no team in the conference (and only Georgia nationally) allows fewer points per contest. The Tigers are allowing the fewest yards per pass attempt and the fewest yards per carry in the ACC. Veteran linebackers James Skalski and Baylon Spector are the top two tacklers for the Tigers and provide leadership for an elite defense.
Up front, Clemson is deep and talented. Defensive ends Xavier Thomas and Myles Murphy spearhead the pass rush while defensive tackle Tyler Davis is a load in the middle. As is the case at linebacker, R.J. Mickens and Nolan Turner are a pair of veteran safeties and have combined for three of Clemson's five interceptions this season. Cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. is the best cover man for Clemson and also tackles very well from his position. Should kicking come into play, the Tigers' B.T. Potter and Orange's Andre Szmyt, a former Lou Groza Award winner, are both very good.
Points will likely be at a premium on Friday night, as the contest features two very good defenses and two inconsistent offenses. Both squads will gear up to stop the run and would prefer for these dual-threat quarterbacks to make plays with their arms. Defensively, Clemson has allowed just three touchdowns in regulation all season. The bye week should afford Swinney and staff some time to make some much-needed adjustments, particularly on offense. Since the start of ACC play, Syracuse has not been the same defense as it was in September.
Prediction: Clemson 20, Syracuse 13
Podcast: Week 7 Preview & Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.