Syracuse head coach Dino Babers is not one who looks for moral victories, but he may have found one last weekend when the Orange pulled to within two points late before LSU scored a touchdown to provide the final margin in a 35-26 Tigers win.
For a Syracuse team that already owns a loss to Middle Tennessee, going to Death Valley and hanging for four quarters against a down-yet-still-ranked LSU team shows incremental progress.
The Wolfpack made the bigger statement last weekend, though, in taking down Florida State in Tallahassee, 27-21, to improve to 3-1 on the year and 1-0 in the ACC. Considered by many a dark horse in the Atlantic Division behind the Seminoles, Clemson and Louisville heading into the season, the Wolfpack proved capable of upsetting that order.
Syracuse wants to be a part of that conversation, too, and with the Orange sitting at 2-2, a win in their league opener over a surging Wolfpack team would put them there.
Syracuse at NC State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 30 at 12:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ACC Network
Spread: NC State -13
Three Things to Watch
1. 'Backer tracker
While the ultra-fast pace of the Syracuse offense has garnered most of the attention since Dino Babers arrived, it's an improving defense that will make the difference in whether or not the Orange go bowling this season. Against LSU, Syracuse was extremely aggressive, bringing extra men to the point of attack, and will likely play that way again this week. The two players to keep an eye on for the Orange are linebackers Parris Bennett and Zaire Franklin (above, right). Bennett was tremendous against the Tigers with 12 tackles, including three for a loss, and a pass breakup that nearly turned into a pick-six. Franklin did not have a big statistical day but is a leader in the middle of the defense. If the Orange want to pull the upset, both will need to carry that side of the ball again.
2. Sack attack
The ACC is flush with terrific defensive linemen this season, from, well, basically everyone on Clemson to Boston College end Harold Landry. But perhaps the player who's had the biggest impact on his team's success has been NC State defensive end Bradley Chubb, who is making his case as not just a star at the college level, but a potential high 2018 NFL Draft pick. So far this season, the 6-foot-4, 275-pounder has 21 tackles, including 8.5 for a loss, and 3.5 sacks. A true disruptor off the edge, Chubb will have plenty of opportunities to rush Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey, as the Orange love to throw. Look for Syracuse to get the ball out of Dungey's hands as fast as possible to try and minimize Chubb's impact, but also because that tends to be how the Orange offense operates.
3. Swiss Army Samuels
On the NC State roster, Jaylen Samuels is listed as an H-back. OK, officially, that descriptor fits. However, Samuels does so much more and will line up almost anywhere depending on the plan by head coach Dave Doeren and offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz. The 5-foot-11, 228-pound Samuels may play running back, tight end, receiver and, yes, H-back, all in a single game, which gives Drinkwitz amazing play-calling flexibility. So far, Samuels has been effective, with 49 rushing yards and 284 receiving, the latter tied for a team high on the season. Teams have yet to figure out how to defend Samuels, and his versatility is a virtue. Syracuse will need to be aware of him at all times.
This might be a bit of a trap game for the Wolfpack, who have Louisville coming to Carter-Finley Stadium the following Thursday in a prime-time matchup that will certainly have implications in the division race. That game has been circled all offseason, while Syracuse has quietly been counted as a win by most teams in the conference for a while now. But the Orange are too dangerous offensively to overlook. Eric Dungey will look often to wide receiver Steve Ishmael, who leads the nation with 45 receptions. The 13-point spread therefore seems a little high, but NC State is the more talented team and should be focused enough to take care of business before the major showdown with the Cardinals just a few days later.
Prediction: NC State 28, Syracuse 24
— 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.