The Tigers and Orange meet on Saturday night in Syracuse
Clemson takes its 17-game winning streak and No. 1 ranking on the road to Syracuse on Saturday night for a key clash in the ACC. The Orange are one of the few teams from the ACC to have success against the Tigers. Syracuse knocked off Clemson 27-24 in 2017 and led late in the fourth quarter before losing 27-23 in Death Valley last fall.
Clemson opened the 2019 season ranked No. 1 in some preseason polls and began its defense of the national title by defeating Georgia Tech 52-14 in Week 1 and Texas A&M 24-10 last Saturday. The Tigers completely dominated the Yellow Jackets in the opener but had to sweat a little more in last week’s win over the Aggies. Both victories came by double-digit margins, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more outcomes like that the rest of the way. Led by a defense that has quickly reloaded behind coordinator Brent Venables and a high-powered offense, Clemson will be heavily favored in all of its remaining games.
Dino Babers was considered one of the top coaching hires in the 2016 carousel, and Syracuse has showed marked improvement over the last three years. After back-to-back 4-8 campaigns, the Orange finished 10-3 overall and No. 15 nationally last season. The 10 wins marked the program’s first double-digit win total since 2001. Even though Syracuse lost quarterback Eric Dungey and a couple of key cogs up front, the program earned its first top 25 ranking in the preseason Associated Press poll since 1998. But the Orange aren’t firing on all cylinders through two games of the season. After a 24-3 win over Liberty in Week 1, Babers’ team was thoroughly dominated by Maryland (63-20) last week.
Clemson leads 5-2 in the all-time series against Syracuse. The Tigers are 2-1 in trips to Syracuse.
Clemson at Syracuse
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 14 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Clemson -27.5
When Clemson Has the Ball
Let’s state the obvious for Syracuse: Stopping Clemson’s high-powered offense isn’t going to be easy. The Tigers are loaded with firepower and talent at the skill positions, feature one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and return four starters on a standout offensive line.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence has been solid (37 of 58 for 436 yards and two scores) this year, but he’s also tossed three interceptions and had a few misfires. While the sophomore isn’t playing at an elite level yet, he’s also not afraid to utilize his legs more than last season. Lawrence also got extra help at receiver last week. Amari Rodgers suffered a torn ACL in spring practice but made a fast return to the lineup and caught two passes against Texas A&M. With Rodgers back in the lineup, the Tigers feature one of the nation’s top receiving trios with Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross forming a matchup nightmare with size and athleticism on the outside.
When Clemson isn’t hurting teams through the air, running back Travis Etienne is doing plenty of damage on the ground. The junior is a threat to score every time he touches the ball and enters Saturday’s game averaging 9.2 yards a carry. Etienne has rushed for 258 yards and three scores over 28 attempts this season and has also worked to become a better receiver out of the backfield.
So how can Syracuse defend Clemson and get stops on Saturday night? Any success by the Orange must start up front. Ends Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman combined for 20 sacks last fall and were part of a pass rush that recorded four against the Tigers last season. Syracuse’s linebacker unit features two new starters and struggled in last week’s loss to Maryland. The Orange rank fourth in the ACC in pass efficiency defense and did not allow a completion longer than 28 yards to Clemson last fall.
In addition to generating a pass rush, Syracuse has to be willing to trade yards for stops on third down and inside of the red zone. Also, limiting the big plays and missed tackles are a must. A few turnovers wouldn’t hurt the Orange’s case for an upset.
When Syracuse Has the Ball
Entering Week 3, it’s clear Syracuse’s offense is a work in progress. The departure of Dungey and a couple of starters up front has created a transition period on this side of the ball. While the Orange have talent, a few things have to fall into place before Babers’ group is performing at a high level. Syracuse averaged 40.2 points a game last season, but that number has dropped to 22 a contest in 2019.
New quarterback Tommy DeVito was a big-time pickup on the recruiting trail for Syracuse and has shown promise in limited action. However, much like the entire offense, DeVito's play has been a little uneven to start 2019. The sophomore has completed 45 of 74 throws for 506 yards and three scores to three picks. After completing only 48.6 percent of his passes in Week 1, DeVito connected on 71.8 and threw for 330 yards versus Maryland last week. While the sophomore isn’t as mobile as Dungey was, he brings more upside as a passer.
DeVito’s supporting cast is strong at the skill positions. Syracuse boasts a talented one-two punch at running back with Moe Neal and Abdul Adams, while Michigan State transfer Trishton Jackson, Taj Harris and Sean Riley form one of the ACC’s top receiving corps.
With DeVito likely to improve as season progresses, along with a deep cast of skill players, it’s only a matter of time before Syracuse starts to put the pieces into place on offense. Of course, there’s one caveat. Will the offensive line step up and play well enough to beat Clemson? Through two games, the Orange have already allowed six sacks. Additionally, rushers are averaging only 3.6 yards a carry.
Concerns in the trenches are never ideal with Clemson up next on the schedule. While the Tigers have a revamped front four, this unit hasn’t missed a beat from last season. Clemson has already recorded six sacks and is holding opposing offenses to 2.9 yards per rush. End Xavier Thomas and tackles Tyler Davis and Nyles Pinckney headline the new stars in the trenches for Venables. Additionally, linebacker Isaiah Simmons is one of the most versatile defenders in college football, and cornerback A.J. Terrell is likely to be a candidate for All-America honors at the end of 2019.
Syracuse certainly has the offensive weapons to put pressure on Clemson’s defense. However, none of that matters if the Orange struggle up front. Can Syracuse’s front five give DeVito enough time to throw and attack downfield? Or will the Tigers simply win the battle all night and not allow a clean pocket for DeVito?
Throughout the offseason, this matchup was predicted to be one of the toughest (and potentially an upset possibility) for Clemson. Two weeks into the season, the storylines for this game have changed a bit. Syracuse had a sluggish debut against Liberty and was dominated by Maryland in Week 2. As indicated by the spread (nearly four touchdowns), the oddsmakers don’t expect the Orange to meet preseason expectations of a close contest in the Dome. While the Tigers have had trouble with Syracuse in each of the last two years, this season is likely to be different. Clemson has too much firepower on offense, and a shaky offensive line for the Orange will be difficult to overcome.