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Syracuse Football: 2021 Orange Season Preview and Prediction

The Orange rank No. 86 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2021
Taj Harris, Syracuse Orange Football

Taj Harris and Syracuse are looking to rebound after going 1-10 last season

Syracuse heads into Year Six of the Dino Babers era in a precarious position. The 10–3 campaign that Babers and the administration hoped would spark a jump from the Orange's status in the cellar of the ACC is more than two years old.

SU followed a 5–7 campaign in 2019 by posting its second one-win season since 1948. The pandemic cut into a pivotal offseason of installation after Babers hired two new coordinators last winter. Then a string of preseason offensive line injuries forced Syracuse to start its fullback at left guard.

This fall marks a chance for Syracuse to take a step forward, but improved line play will be needed for the team to get back into postseason play and for Babers to solidify his long-term vision.

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

Previewing Syracuse's Offense for 2021

Recognizing the need for talented depth at the quarterback position, Babers went out and landed a transfer. Garrett Shrader is a dual-threat signal-caller out of Mississippi State who was promised the opportunity to compete with two-year incumbent Tommy DeVito.

A former four-star prospect, Shrader faces an uphill battle to take the mantle from DeVito this offseason. But his mobility and knack for playmaking could well come in handy once the games begin. DeVito has faced a constant stream of pressure in the last two years, and barring a massive turnaround up front and quicker decision-making by DeVito, that will continue in some fashion.

The hope, internally, is that Syracuse can mend some of its issues in the trenches, allowing DeVito to stay in the pocket and utilize the arm talent that led him to his own four-star ranking and Elite 11 finals appearance as a recruit.

Last year's transfer addition, ex-Florida guard Chris Bleich, is eligible and healthy to compete, and the staff landed a junior college prospect in Jakob Bradford to boost the unit. SU also returns all of its primary contributors from a year ago, including a rising standout in sophomore tackle Matthew Bergeron.

Competition is expected in a running back room that sees last year's top two performers, Sean Tucker and Cooper Lutz, challenged by veterans Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard, both of whom rejoined the program for winter workouts after opting out last fall.

Taj Harris and Anthony Queeley return as starting receivers, while a young group that includes Damien Alford, Ja'Vontae Williams and Courtney Jackson is expected to vie for spots in the rotation.

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Previewing Syracuse's Defense for 2021

Coordinator Tony White is gearing his unit up for Year Two of the 3-3-5 scheme. A movement-based defense that is meant to confuse quarterbacks and create impact play opportunities, the scheme was somewhat successful in Year One.

A paltry offense often left the defense tired late in games, and injuries to two of its three best playmakers forced young members of the secondary to start. But the Orange consistently forced turnovers and achieved traditional success for spurts behind a balance of proven upperclassmen and promising underclassmen. Barring a disastrous reloading of the secondary, SU's defense stands to only get better in 2021.

Sophomore linebacker Mikel Jones led the nation with eight turnovers contributed to, while redshirt freshman corner Garrett Williams has emerged as the next star in a defensive backs room that is sending Andre Cisco, Trill Williams and Ifeatu Melifonwu to the NFL. The Orange bring back all three senior starters on the defensive line as well as almost every contributor in the front six, although linebacker Lee Kpogba is suspended indefinitely for an undisclosed reason and reserve Tyrell Richards elected to transfer.

From an uncertainty standpoint, the focus for SU lies almost solely in the secondary. Some younger players return with playing experience, including freshman starters Rob Hanna, Ja'Had Carter and Aman Greenwood, but there are plenty of others vying for those spots. And New Mexico State transfer Jason Simmons Jr. will join the fray when he arrives over the summer.

Previewing Syracuse's Specialists for 2021

The Orange must replace three key figures in the third phase of the game. Punter Nolan Cooney did not return, leaving freshman James Williams as the likely starter at that spot. Return man Nykeim Johnson transferred to Kent State, paving the way for a competition on the punt and kickoff sides; Trebor Pena returned a kickoff for a touchdown last year. The biggest loss, though, is likely coordinator Justin Lustig, who set the table for SU to finish as one of the ACC's best special teams groups but departed for Vanderbilt.

Final Analysis

After the pandemic contributed to a ghastly 2020 season, the eligibility flexibility that resulted gives Syracuse bolstered depth for this fall and potentially the next few seasons as well. Whether SU can capitalize on that, against teams that also have the same luxury, is the question. As has been the case the last two years, it all starts with the offensive line. If that group can do enough to let Babers and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert run their veer-and-shoot system comfortably, SU has the pieces in place to compete with most of its opponents. But if the front five struggles again, another losing season appears likely.

National Ranking: 86

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