The Syracuse Orange appear close to a breakthrough in Dino Babers' third season. Led by a high-powered offense, Syracuse should be in the mix for its first bowl bid since 2013. When healthy, quarterback Eric Dungey is among the best in the ACC. However, Dungey has struggled to stay in the lineup in each of the last three years. If Dungey is sidelined again, Babers has a capable insurance policy in talented redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito. In addition to keeping Dungey healthy, Babers has to replace his top two receivers from last season, develop more consistency out of the ground attack and improve a defense that allowed 32.2 points per game in 2017. Concerns remain with a revamped linebacker unit, but an improved line and secondary should help the defense take a step forward.
Previewing Syracuse Football's Offense for 2018
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Quarterback Eric Dungey returns with three years of starting experience and a growing national appreciation for his toughness and playmaking ability. But Dungey, who has yet to finish a season healthy, has legitimate competition for the starting job in redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito, the most accurate signal caller in SU's quarterback room.
Competition is a theme for the offense, which features two experienced running backs in senior Dontae Strickland and junior Moe Neal who understand that they are expected to improve production on the ground.
At receiver, Devin Butler and Nykeim Johnson lead a group of largely inexperienced players. Both have top-end speed, but Butler needs to become more consistent -- both in his technique and simply catching the ball -- while Johnson must learn to combat physicality at the line of scrimmage. The X-factor here is senior Antwan Cordy, a free safety who missed most of the last two years due to injury and saw time at slot this spring.
Senior tight end Ravian Pierce could become the most reliable pass catcher on the roster -- especially if the offensive line can be trusted more in pass protection. That's where the real key to increased production lies. The Orange get senior guard Aaron Roberts back from injury, return five players with at least a year of starting experience and added former Texas A&M tackle Koda Martin as a graduate transfer.
Previewing Syracuse Football's Defense for 2018
Senior nose tackle Chris Slayton has developed into one of the most dominant and underrated forces in the ACC. The soft-spoken 320-pounder squats 700 pounds and has the lateral quickness to chase down runners on the perimeter. And for once, Syracuse has a pair of experienced edge rushers in juniors Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson.
The strength of last year's team -- linebackers -- could be the weakest position group in 2018. An entirely new rotation is expected to feature junior college additions Ryan Guthrie and Lakiem Williams.
The secondary seems poised to avoid the struggles that have plagued the group the last two seasons. Starters Chris Fredrick, Scoop Bradshaw and Evan Foster are back, while Cordy could contribute at free safety or nickel. Sophomore Devon Clarke and redshirt freshman Ifeatu Melifonwu are also options at free safety.
Previewing Syracuse Football's Specialists for 2018
Sterling Hofrichter is in line to do something no Orange player has done since 2000 -- pull double duty as the team's punter and placekicker. Hofrichter has been one of the ACC's better punters in each of his two seasons and took about one-third of the team's practice reps at placekicker last year. Sean Riley should serve as the primary return man for the third straight year.
Syracuse enters Year 3 of the Dino Babers era with reason to believe that a four-year bowl drought could end this fall. The Orange bring back experienced lines, have quality quarterback depth and feature an experienced secondary. The schedule is slightly less of a gauntlet, too.
There are questions, though, on both sides of the ball. How will SU replace its linebackers, including three-time captain Zaire Franklin? Can the receiving corps pick up the production that graduated with Steve Ishmael and Erv Philips?
This projects to be a season in which Babers' reputation begins to take shape. A postseason appearance would invite talk of a contract extension. But another disappointing finish would hurt much more than the last two seasons.