The ACC doesn't often travel to play a team on the road yet on Friday night, Syracuse heads to Western Michigan. It's the first-ever meeting between the schools. The Orange are 20-5 all-time against current MAC schools.
Syracuse head coach Dino Babers is looking for the payoff as he heads into his third year with the school. The Orange went 4-8 last season, with five of those losses coming by single digits. The bottom really fell out at the end of the 2017 campaign, when the team allowed 162 points combined in losses to Wake Forest, Louisville and Boston College. The season could depend on how long Eric Dungey stays healthy and slinging passes under center. The signal caller made nine starts and nearly pulled off upsets at Miami and Florida State. He brings a fire and an intensity that fuels the rest of the squad. The defense has six starters back as well, with the hopes that things will be better in 2018.
Western Michigan went 6-6 in 2017 and should have some familiarity with what Syracuse brings to the table, as head coach Tim Lester was the Orange's OC in 2014-15, and a lot of the staff he brought to Kalamazoo was with him as well. The Broncos bring back 13 starters, eight of them on the offensive side of the ball. This is just the second time since 2008 that they will host a Power 5 school. Michigan State came to Kalamazoo in 2015 and picked up a 37-24 victory. Last year the squad went 2-2 in non-conference play with wins over Wagner and Idaho at home and losses at USC and Michigan State.
Syracuse at Western Michigan
Kickoff: Friday, Aug. 31 at 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBSSN
Spread: Syracuse -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Familiarity breeds victories?
It's important to note that Lester will have some idea what the Orange are capable of on offense. Several of the players were not around when he was coaching, but still he knows some of the strengths and weaknesses of several key players. Eric Dungey is a game-changer at quarterback, but he's got some new weapons to break in. The WR corps lost Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips, who accounted for 194 receptions in 2017. Devin Butler and Ravian Pierce are the top two returning weapons, and they only had a combined 62 catches.
The Broncos' defense has only five starters back from a 2017 team that allowed 29 points and almost 400 yards of offense per game. The pressure up front will have to come from the likes of junior Antonio Balabani and sophomore Ali Fayad, who had six sacks combined last season. The outlook for this side of the ball would have been so much better if cornerback Sam Beal hadn't declared for the NFL's Supplemental Draft. Juwan Dowels comes over from Syracuse as a grad transfer to help try and replace Beal.
2. Can the Orange squeeze out some defensive stops?
Syracuse's defense brings back six starters from a unit that allowed over 30 points and over 440 yards of offense per game, although those numbers are skewed a bit because of the rough finish to last year's campaign. In a conference filled with defensive line talent, Chris Slayton is lost in the shuffle a bit. He had 7.5 tackles for a loss last year and is the anchor up front along with sophomore Alton Robinson and junior Kendall Coleman. The questions come at linebacker, where the Orange are replacing Paris Bennett and Zaire Franklin. The returnees have just one start combined, so they could be exploitable. Christopher Fredrick and Scoop Bradshaw man the corners.
Western Michigan's offense is no slouch. Last year, the Broncos scored 30 points or more seven times. Jon Wassink threw the ball really well until he suffered a broken collarbone. Wassink completed almost 65% of his passes and had 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions. The backfield is loaded with Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy back. Bogan is eighth all-time on the school's rushing list and has 22 touchdowns in his career. Keishawn Watson, D'Wayne Eskridge and Michigan grad transfer Drake Harris are all in the mix at wide receiver.
Western Michigan doesn't get the opportunity to play an ACC school at home very often. Waldo Stadium figures to be rocking on Friday night, when the school will get a national showcase on the CBS Sports Network. Over the last 10 years, WMU is 36-19 at home. The last time the Broncos had a losing record there was in 2013, when the team went 1-11 overall and 0-5 at home.
There's a lot more on the line for Syracuse, which is just 4-14 in road openers. The last time the Orange began a season away from the Carrier Dome was in 2013, when they lost 23-17 to Penn State on a neutral field. The Orange are favored to win this according to Vegas and are staring at three straight games at home afterwards. There is an expectation of a bowl game this season, and getting to six wins will be a whole lot easier if they get this one.
Will Western Michigan play nervous with this opportunity ahead of them, or will Syracuse play tight considering that this is essentially a must-win?
Vegas has an over/under of around 64 points for this one, so plenty of points will be scored. Both teams have potent offenses with defenses that could be a little wet behind the ears. Syracuse hung tough at LSU, Miami and Florida State in 2017, and those atmospheres were a lot more hostile then what they will encounter in this one. Still, I think an upset is in play. Lester's familiarity with the road team is the edge, and the Broncos' ability to run the ball may be the difference in running out the clock in the end.
Prediction: Western Michigan 35, Syracuse 31
-- Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.