When Dino Babers arrived in central New York in December 2015, he envisioned building a national contender. With Syracuse coming off its first 10-win season since 2001 and highest AP ranking since 1998, that doesn’t sound quite so crazy. The Orange have built up their talent and depth in most positions heading into Year 4 of the Babers era. Now, SU is gearing up for its most manageable schedule since joining the ACC in 2013.
A Week 3 matchup with Clemson — an opponent that SU has played to the wire each of the last two years (one win, one loss) — looms as a game with ACC championship and College Football Playoff implications. Win that game, one that could bring College GameDay to Syracuse for the first time ever, and nothing is off the table.
Of course, there are questions. How will the Orange replace two starting linebackers and three offensive linemen? Is sophomore quarterback Tommy DeVito ready to step in and lead the offense? Can SU win on the road against Florida State and NC State?
Previewing Syracuse's Offense for 2019
With a shift at QB from the playmaking Eric Dungey to the pocket-passing DeVito, Babers and offensive coordinator Mike Lynch have big-picture decisions to make about their offense.
Syracuse is expected to install more screens for its deep cast of running backs, led by senior Moe Neal and junior Abdul Adams, as well as check-down opportunities to keep defenses from getting after DeVito.
A traditional run game would be the best way to unlock DeVito’s downfield passing. A group that leaned on Dungey’s legs now must find other means for success.
The Orange graduate both starting tackles in Cody Conway and Koda Martin, as well as left guard Aaron Roberts. In their place, look for South Alabama graduate transfer Ryan Alexander to start at tackle while sophomore Dakota Davis could step in at a guard spot.
If the offensive line can mesh, the backs appear capable of making consistent gains. Neal averaged 5.6 yards per carry last year while Adams, a transfer from Oklahoma, logged two touchdowns in his SU debut during the Camping World Bowl. Adams averaged 9.2 yards as a sophomore at OU.
DeVito’s most proven targets in the passing game are slot receivers Sean Riley and Nykeim Johnson. The former is a three-year contributor and standout return man, while the latter flashed his big-play ability with three touchdowns of at least 40 yards.
Trishton Jackson, who transferred from Michigan State at the same time as Adams last spring, is a candidate to break out. Sophomore Taj Harris is a rising threat at outside receiver.
Previewing Syracuse's Defense for 2019
Syracuse made significant progress on defense last season, reducing its yards per play allowed from 6.4 to 5.8 and its points allowed from 32.2 to 27.0.
The Orange are loaded on the line with senior edge rushers Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman ready to build off double-digit-sack seasons. Junior Josh Black has shifted to nose tackle and will look to fill the enormous shoes of Chris Slayton, who demanded double-teams last fall.
SU’s secondary features experienced contributors such as corner Chris Fredrick and strong safety Evan Foster, both seniors, as well as standout second-year guys like nickel/corner Trill Williams and free safety Andre Cisco. Cisco tied for the national lead in interceptions (seven) a year ago en route to earning All-America honors and being named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The linebacking unit, once again, faces uncertainty. Last year, the Orange leaned hard on seniors Ryan Guthrie and Kielan Whitner, who worked through some struggles to become reliable cogs in the defense. In 2019, Syracuse has experienced options such as Lakiem Williams and Andrew Armstrong. The Orange also have talented underclassmen in Juan Wallace, Mikel Jones and Lee Kpogba.
How defensive coordinator Brian Ward handles the competition during preseason camp will be a major storyline.
Previewing Syracuse's Specilaists for 2019
Syracuse featured arguably the nation’s best special teams a year ago, led by Andre Szmyt and Sterling Hofrichter. Both are back for 2019. Szmyt went from a walk-on redshirt freshman to a unanimous All-American and Lou Groza Award winner last season. He made 30-of-34 field goals, including all three of his attempts from 50-plus yards. Hofrichter, now a senior, was an All-ACC selection and one of the top punters in the nation. His gross punting average (42.9) was second in the ACC while SU’s net punting average (39.1) led the conference for the second year in a row. Riley is back as the primary return man.
Within the Syracuse program, it’s clear that the stakes have risen.
Syracuse wants to compete for an ACC championship. It wants to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The big question: Can the Orange beat Clemson? SU shocked the Tigers in the Carrier Dome two years ago and lost a heartbreaker at Death Valley last fall. The Tigers return to Syracuse on Sept. 14 in what figures to be one of the pivotal games on the ACC slate this season.