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TNIAAM Syracuse Football Roundtable: Previewing Duke

We're facing Duke this weekend; let's talk about it with the TNIAAM football staff.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Syracuse football roundtable! The Orange could be doomed after losing to NC State last week, but let's just elect to take things one game at a time, shall we? First up in SU's "quest" for 3-0 is Duke, a team that is ranked, leads the Coastal division and could actually make the College Football Playoff if they win out. Moving on...

As is and will be the norm all season, we've opened the floor to the TNIAAM football wing to discuss this week's burning questions about Syracuse on- and off-the-field, the ACC and more. Join us below:

Your thoughts on the news that Tim Lester will be Syracuse's offensive coordinator in 2015?

Ben Burrows: I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of Lester so far, as the play calling that we all questioned is largely the same. I don’t expect him to change the system during the season — and I don’t think that’s something that any of us truly want or believe would work — so I think it’s good that he at least has a shot to change things this offseason and get a new system in for next year. I think a few games into next season is when we can properly judge how good of an OC he actually is.

Michael Burke: I don’t really get it, to be honest. The Orange are struggling badly, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They were God-awful against Clemson and not much better, considering the opponent, against N.C. State last week. Lester’s definitely an upgrade from George McDondald, but in the midst of a losing streak, I don’t understand this news.

The Invisible Swordsman: I think Tim deserves a shot at the OC position as he has been competent in his play calling and game planning. Our execution -- particularly with such weak depth -- has been the main challenge in the games Lester has led the offense. Plus, Lester's official appointment will hopefully allow SU to hang on to the recruits that I am sure are weighing their options in lieu of our 2014 performance and McDonald's demotion.

Matt McClusky: Doesn't this have the same feel of "Buffalo and Ryan Fitzpatrick have agreed to terms on a new deal here at the halfway point of the 2011 season" to it? I'm not necessarily saying it's not warranted, but why not let the season play itself out before fully committing? There is the sentiment that Scott Shafer had no real choice but to re-up with Tim Lester and avoid bringing in a third offensive coordinator during his short reign. But for me, I think it's too important a position to just play it safe. This season is lost and if Lester doesn't show himself as the right person for the job, what's going to happen next year?

Dan Lyons: I just think that the timing is really questionable. I know that there is a "grain of salt" element that should be taken with what we see from Tim Lester, because he's running a modified version of another coach's offense. However, Tim Lester isn't a commodity. He may be a great coach, but he's not a guy that is going to go get poached by an SEC school to coach quarterbacks. If he goes out and helps the offense put up big numbers in the final three games, maybe there would be reason to commit to him. However, nothing that we've seen from Lester screams that this is a guy that needs to be held on to, especially when there is a good chance he would stick around as quarterbacks coach. It just seemed like a rushed, panicked decision with weird timing. If Lester was the best option at OC, that could have been decided deep into the offseason.

John Cassillo: I unloaded some thoughts here when it first happened, and those points still stand. It's not that Lester has proven he can't do the job. But has be proven he can? The timing here makes no sense and puts Syracuse in a position where they pretty much have to go with Lester now even if the offense takes an even steeper nosedive in the last three weeks. From a PR standpoint, why not CYA and leave all options open after the season?

Is Syracuse football about to start hemorrhaging recruits as George McDonald (likely) looks for a new job elsewhere?

BB: If SU starts hemorrhaging recruits it has more to do with kids giving early verbals and realizing it’s just not a fantastic program right now. Sure, McDonald has been a good recruiter in the past, but I think there are plenty of other reasons for kids to pick another school. The Carrier Dome isn’t exactly a great football venue and while SU has had some recent success in bowl games, it’s not as though the Orange has been fighting for a conference championship lately. Between bad weather, a stadium that doesn’t fill and little chance to play for anything more than a mid-level bowl, there are plenty of other reasons for kids to decommit than simply losing the point man on their recruitment.

MB: I think so. There’s no denying that he’s been essential in recruiting for the Orange, and if he leaves, I’m guessing a good number of his recruits are out, too. But I’ll also say this: I’d rather have no McDonald and a slightly worse recruiting class than a better recruiting class with McDonald calling plays. He’s that bad.

TIS: I am less concerned about losing commits than losing our pipeline for 2016 and 2017. Say what you want about G McD as an OC, but his handle on Florida recruits were the cornerstone of our efforts over the past two years, not sure we will be able to backfill that strength right away.

MM: It's one of the biggest, if not the biggest, question surrounding the football program right now. At 3-6, a bowl is really out of the question. So focusing on the future, if that fairly-decent-for-Syracuse class bolts, things may go from bad to worse, quick.

DL: That might be a strong word, but it certainly seems like we're seeing the effects of the probable departure already. This is something that will always happen with coaching turnover. You don't hang on to a bad coach for a few recruits, ultimately coaching ability is incredibly important as well.

JC: We've already seen a couple McDonald guys leave, and I doubt that's the last of them. We also can't 100-percent confirm that McDonald is either sabotaging recruiting or just flat-out not recruiting... but it stands to reason that he's going to have a negative impact one way or another. Time to let him go.

What do you think of A.J. Long's ability to throw the ball after about 3.5 games?

BB: When you consider what he has had to work with, I think Long has done well. I can’t claim anything about his ability to throw the ball down field because he hasn’t really had the opportunity, but I think he has actually been more accurate than Hunt was on those medium throws. Hunt missed a ton of those early in the season and I think Long has done a good job of throwing a catchable ball. I imagine he will get better once SU opens up the play calling to include more play action and possibly more read-option.

MB: I’m pretty content with what I’ve seen. He’s shown flashes, and to me, that’s all we can really ask for. Yeah, he’s been inconsistent. But he’s also a true freshman who was handed the keys to the offense midseason. Expecting him to be much better than he’s been would’ve been unfair.

TIS: I think his ability over the last three games tells me we are in for a quarterback controversy over the spring and summer, with AJ and Terrel battling it out to see who is the most average QB on the team...only for Alin Edouard to take the job anyway once he returns to campus.

MM: There's moments, or flashes, where I think, This kid is going to eventually be so good! But, just the same, there are too many other times where I'm thinking, No dice, this kid isn't the answer. All in all, I say it's still too early to judge and those injuries to the line simply can't be ignored. A.J. Long deserves more time, and some healthy and able-bodied teammates.

DL: He's definitely a true freshman. A.J. seems to have more natural throwing ability and accurate than Terrel Hunt, but he does make rash decisions at times, and tries to force things more often than necessary. Ultimately, I think we would be far more impressed if he had a healthy offensive line in front of him. Before the Clemson game, Syracuse's OL allowed five sacks total. In the Clemson and N.C. State games, that number is 13.

JC: A.J. will get time, so the jury is rightfully still out, but you have to like what you see in the kid already. With no offensive line, injuries to top passing targets and a a play-calling scheme designed to run through him instead of the ground game, I'd say he's more than exceeded expectations. This team doesn't have the personnel for 300-yard passing days, but you have to commend him for pulling it off this past Saturday, too.

Duke is probably going 11-1 this season. Explain this to me...

BB: That schedule, man. No FSU. No Clemson. No Louisville. Duke beat up on Elon, Troy, Kansas and Tulane before dropping a whopping 10 points on the road to Miami. Georgia Tech and Virginia were decent games but Duke simply hasn’t faced great competition this year. Don’t get me wrong, Duke is a good team. But it played one ranked opponent and with SU, Virginia Tech, UNC and Wake Forest coming up, I expect that team to be 11-1.

MB: Man, the Duke turnaround as a program is incredible. Are the Blue Devils really an 11-1 caliber team? Well, in the ACC they are. They had an easy out of conference schedule and, being in the ACC, the in-conference schedule isn’t tough either. So that has to be taken into account. But these guys are good, and I’d propose that they might be a little better than Clemson. I think they’ll give Florida State all it can handle in the conference title game.

TIS: Duke switched from tuna on toast and a cup of coffee to chicken on rye, un-toasted, and a cup of tea.

MM: Clear leadership with a bottom-to-top plan. David Cutcliffe, who had already proven himself as a quality coach, was given time to build and create at Duke. And in doing so, he was able to mold to what would work for a middling program with a limited budget. It wasn't an easy go of things for a while, and at most "Power Five" schools Cutcliffe would have been fired long ago, but eventually Cutcliffe's coaching and his recruiting started to pay off. Of course, Syracuse and Duke are both small, private schools that have become known for basketball. So maybe a long-term plan could work on the Hill. But Duke football was so irrelevant for so many years that it's not a really fair comparison. The Blue Devils program was at rock bottom and had nothing but time to wait and see if Cutcliffe and the plan worked. Syracuse, despite plenty of losing seasons, just has more "pressure" on it to win now.

DL: They made a great hire with Dave Cutcliffe, provided him resources to succeed, had patience in his process, and scheduled for success. While this model might not totally work for Syracuse (I could see the message board posts in my head if Syracuse's non-conference slate was Elon, Troy, Kansas, and Tulane), Duke was coming from a sub-G-Rob level place, if that is possible. The Duke football story is a commendable one.

JC: Scheduling is the start of it all, since setting yourself up at 4-0 before conference play begins is certainly a smart idea for a growing program. But David Cutcliffe is an offensive mastermind and he's surrounded himself with quality coaches who can go out and get talent for his system. This team has not really been tested all year, but that doesn't much matter if you beat just about everyone anyway.

What do the Blue Devils need to do in order to beat the Orange just like you probably expect?

BB: Unless Duke implodes on one side of the ball, I think it’ll be fine. SU just doesn’t have enough on offense to truly compete with high-quality teams right now. Something like 23 or 24 points should put SU away unless AJ Long comes out and passes for 400 yards and three TDs and PTG decides to start running forward. SU’s defense can keep it in games, but unless Duke commits several turnovers and gives SU a short field for easy scores I don’t think SU’s offense can do enough. The defense is really good, but expecting it to hold good teams to 14 or 21 points and hoping for a pick-6 to help the offense isn’t something that is realistic or sustainable.

MB: They just need to avoid beating themselves. Unless they commit some stupid penalties and/or turn the ball over more than once or twice, I see the Blue Devils running away with this one.

TIS: Convert oxygen into carbon dioxide.

MM: On defense, the Devils need to attack the walking wounded. Pressure Syracuse's weakened offensive line and make frosh A.J. Long run for his life. If given time, Long has shown, at times, to be able to make adjustments and complete some tough passes. Take that time with heavy rush up the middle.Offensively, Duke should be able to control the clock. Cutcliffe's team is tied for first in the country for fewest sacks allowed, and is first in fewest tackles for loss allowed as well. Wear down the defense and take control of the game early if you're Duke. That will become even easier should the Devils force Long and company into a lot of three-and-outs.

DL: 1.) Have Jamison Crowder run past the defense. 2.) Throw Jamison Crowder the ball. 3.) ? 4.) Profit

JC: As long as Duke makes sure to do what they've been excelling at all season -- using the run to set up the pass, effectively deploying two quarterbacks, being competent on defense -- they'll win this game. They don't force turnovers, really, so it's all about bend-don't break for the Blue Devils on D. The offense has hit a groove lately, and that's likely to continue.

What can Syracuse do to pull an unlikely upset over a ranked team and inspire a brief glimmer of hope?

BB: I’ll get the whole ‘don’t commit turnovers and force a few’ out of the way. That clearly has to happen. But to go deeper I think SU needs to involve Long more in the running game and needs to feature the play action more. Forget about whether or not Long can throw the ball down field for a second— the Orange don’t call those plays right now. That has to change. Teams can stack the box with eight or nine defenders and play the run right now. SU needs to show it can make quick strikes down field or it will likely spend the first three quarters getting short runs on first and second down and facing third-and-longs before abandoning the run when it falls behind. The Orange has tried the ‘establish the run’ plan a few times and it hasn’t worked.

MB: A.J. Long has to go nuts. Duke is only 43rd in the country in passing yards allowed per game, so it’s possible. Do I see it happening? No. But we’ll see.

TIS: The offense needs to eliminate the killer turnovers and convert inside the red z...oh forget it, why do I even bother???

MM: The Blue Devils allowed Pitt to put up 48 points in a double-overtime scare last weekend. And, in all reality, the Panthers should have won that game. And the thing is, Pitt, as a team, rushed for over 350 yards. So, Syracuse should at least attempt to lean heavy on the run early, attempt to establish Prince Tyson-Gulley and the stable of backs. Who knows, maybe a couple of big runs in the first couple of drives of the game will set the tone for a Cole Murphy fifty-yarder for the win at the buzzer?

DL: Stick Brandon Reddish on Crowder and don't let him do anything else, get pressure on Anthony Boone (not very easy, this season), and force Duke into turnovers. Duke's offense will beat Syracuse's offense if this becomes a shoot-out, so SU needs to capitalize on mistakes and try to swing the time of possession battle in this one.

JC: Force turnovers and make Duke press the tempo on offense and move the ball through the air more. Anthony Boone is a good QB, but much better when he gets time. The Blue Devils' defensive front is a bit undersized, so if Syracuse chooses to run the football (please?!), they may be able to exploit that and grab some big gains behind backs like Adonis Ameen-Moore.