Tigers hope to keep cruising against improving Orange
You won't find the Clemson Tigers and Syracuse Orange in the same stratosphere when it comes to where the two programs stand in the heirarchy of college football, but that does not mean that there will be no intrigue when the teams meet at the Carrier Dome this Friday night.
Clemson, of course, sits at 6-0 overall and 4-0 in the ACC ranked second in the nation and every bit capable of defending its national title.
Along the way, Clemson has quality wins over the likes of Auburn, Louisville and Virginia Tech. Even though the Tigers saw starting quarterback Kelly Bryant suffer an ankle injury last weekend against Wake Forest (more on that later), this team is still hurtling toward the College Football Playoff at full speed with no sign of letting up.
Syracuse is only 3-3 and 1-1 in the ACC but is coming off a home win over a Pittsburgh team that is about on the same level expectation-wise. It was the type of 50-50 game that a team like Syracuse needed to win in order to make headway in the conference.
By virtue of its loss to Middle Tennessee earlier in the season, it will be tough for the Orange to get to six wins, but this is an improved team in head coach Dino Babers' second season. It has a chance to show how far it has come if it can be competitive with a true elite in Clemson.
Clemson at Syracuse
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Clemson -22.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Spreading the wealth
Several things stuck out for Syracuse in its 27-24 win over Pittsburgh, not the least of which was a defense that slowed down an offense that had scored 76 points on the Orange a year ago — albeit with different players. But on the other side of the ball, the big takeaway was that quarterback Eric Dungey did not merely zero in on wide receivers Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips, who have combined for 108 catches through six games. No, Dungey hit sophomore receiver Devin Butler for season highs of seven receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown. He also found junior tight end Ravian Pierce for season highs of nine catches for 99 yards. In an offense that has been heavily reliant on Ishmael and Phillips, Syracuse can make itself tougher to defend with more weapons getting the ball. They will need all hands on deck against a Clemson defense that might be the best in the nation.
2. Bryant's availability
There's no question that Kelly Bryant's ankle injury is a big question mark coming into this game. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said this week that although his quarterback would be limited in practice, he did think Bryant would be able to play Friday night. That's not a slam dunk, though, so don't expect to have a clear answer on this until the game kicks off. Although Bryant has been a force with both his arm and his legs this season, the cupboard is hardly bare behind him. Watch out for true freshman Hunter Johnson, a five-star recruit who has worlds of potential. He completed 5-of-5 passes for 42 yards against Wake Forest, including a 13-yard touchdown to Cannon Smith in the fourth quarter. In other words, even though Bryant would be a significant loss, the Tigers have solid options if he can't play through the ankle injury.
3. That other Bryant
There is another Bryant on the other side of the ball who is becoming a star for Clemson. That's defensive lineman Austin Bryant, who is having a breakout year. The defensive line overall is loaded with projected high NFL draft picks, but Bryant may be the one who is performing at the highest level right now. After fighting through injuries a year ago, Bryant has been nearly unblockable. For the season, he has racked up 32 tackles, including a team-high 11 for a loss, which is more than the other three starters up front combined. He also has a team-high five sacks. It's an embarrassment of riches along the Clemson front, and Syracuse will have a major headache trying to block everyone.
The injury to Kelly Bryant adds a layer of intrigue to this one, especially if it truly hampers him or he cannot play. Syracuse has improved on defense and is playing with more confidence this season. Progress is being made in Central New York, but there's not really any reason to think Clemson will be in any danger. The Tigers are simply in another class, and that will show Friday night.
Prediction: Clemson 34, Syracuse 13
— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.