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TNIAAM Football Roundtable: Previewing Syracuse vs. Virginia

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Is this a must-win? What can SU learn from last week? Let's see what the TNIAAM think about the critical questions headed into this game.

Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Is this a must-win game for Syracuse Football?

John Cassillo: Pretty much. Since the Orange aren't ones to upset teams under Scott Shafer, that means they have to go 3-1 against Virginia, Pitt, NC State and Boston College to make a bowl. Win this one, and that's obviously a little easier. Lose, and... now you have to win three straight against those teams? Sorry that I'm skeptical. Just doesn't seem too likely.

Kevin Wall: I think it is. With the way the schedule was set up this year, the Orange need to be 4-2 heading into what will be the tougher stretch. Virginia isn't a very good team, and they are reeling after a brutal non-conference schedule. Syracuse needs to win this game to have a realistic chance to get to 6 wins.

Brian Tahmosh: It’s not a must-win for the program. Think about it: if we lose, it just reaffirms the national media’s perception that we’re terrible. If we win, it doesn’t really change that perception, it just pushes it off until we continue to lose against the tougher teams coming up on the schedule. No one's saying "Syracuse is back" because we beat UVA.

Michael Burke: Yes, assuming the goal is to get to six wins and make a bowl game. That goal might not be achievable regardless of what happens against Virginia, but winning would certainly help.

Brian Pilatzke: Yes. The way the schedule plays out, this game is a must win to get to six wins. UVa is one of the two weakest teams left on the schedule. Syracuse needs to win this one, beat BC and then find another win from Pitt, NC State, or Louisville to reach bowl eligibility.

Sean Keeley: The goal is to win six games and get to a bowl game. So considering the schedule ahead, I would say yes. Not only is it one-less win we need to worry about on the backend but it means SU won't have to pull off some kind of unlikely upset in order to get there. Plus, with a lot of sure-losses ahead, we need a win before we get there. Lose this game and I can't imagine we still get to six.

Is this a must-win game for Scott Shafer?

JC: I would've said yes, but then 5-star TE Chris Clark decided to transfer here yesterday. Now? He seems well-situated to stick around so long as the Orange do anything except lose out. That's not really okay, in my book, but I'd understand it if Shafer was brought back after a 4-8 record and a promising recruiting class coming in the door. Obviously a bowl game AND the incoming recruiting class (which... is really not THAT MUCH better than previous classes) would be the preferred outcome. So let's just make that happen.

KW: I know it's odd to say that Syracuse faces a must-win, but Scott Shafer doesn't, but that's how I feel right now. It's possible that a loss this weekend could be covered by an upset win later this season, or that a 5-7 record is enough to convince Mark Coyle that a change isn't needed right now.

BT: It is absolutely a must-win game for Shafer. Following the LSU game, the South Florida and Virginia games were two of the easiest remaining on the schedule. If you drop both of those, the chances of making a bowl fall to almost zero. After starting 3-0 and playing LSU tough, it’s going to be really difficult for Mark Coyle to justify keeping a coach who finished 2-7, 1-8, or dare-I-say 0-9 in the final three months of the season. This isn’t the nail in the coffin if he loses Saturday, but it makes it a very uphill battle for him to keep his job going forward.

MB: You would think. As Brian says, the South Florida and Virginia games were supposed to be must-wins, even if they weren't guaranteed wins. Losing both means Syracuse could very well be heading toward a 3-9 season, as crazy as that sounds to say right now. The best case scenario is probably five wins, and even with the incoming recruiting class, I don't think that's enough to warrant bringing back Shafer. And it's not just the Orange are losing, it's how they've played. They looked completely unprepared last week. That falls on the head coach's shoulders.

BP: Yes. I think this season is six wins or bust for Shafer and staff. With a new AD, he'll want to hire his own guy, and will take the first opportunity to do so. With how weak this year's schedule (which with the injury bug at BC & Pitt and some other teams not playing up to par is even weaker than expected) less than six wins is simply unacceptable. Dungey has played well enough where you can just point to the Hunt injury as an excuse.The vaunted Shafer/Bullough defense has been porous. Poor management (team flat off of bye week, offense not ready for the first halves of games, 10 men on the field after TDs, etc.) can no longer be excused.

SK: I kinda think it feels like one. If you assume we're going to lose a bunch of upcoming games, Shafer needs to ride some positive momentum in order to maintain his status. Lose here and you lose what's left of the fanbase before the bottom falls out. A win over NC State in a few weeks won't be enough to stem the tide.

Is SU fading or is the competition level just catching up to them?

JC: The offense surely isn't fading, but the defense? Yeah, it's both a case of competition catching up and teams catching on to what they're doing and how to beat them. Maybe by the end of the season, the Orange offense can put up 40 per game and hang with opponents simply burning them up and down the field. But until then, SU's severely handcuffed by a fading, underwhelming defense.

KW: A little of both. It's expected that a young team would go through ups and downs, and no road games are truly easy at this level. However, it's also clear that the Syracuse offense needs to pick things up to help out the defense. The Orange can't afford to go an entire half without moving the ball and scoring points.

BT: I worry more about SU fading. Teams have some tape on Dungey now. South Florida CLEARLY picked apart tape on the defense. It’s becoming very easy to gameplan on both sides of the ball to exploit SU’s weaknesses. And as that competition level increases, Syracuse isn’t going to win because it has the better athletes on the field anymore. And my biggest fear after the USF game is that they will be outcoached as well as out-classed in terms of athletic ability.

MB: I don't know if Syracuse is fading. I think everyone overreacted to the LSU game -- which, by the way, looks like it was a really stupid game to schedule. Playing LSU tough wasn't that big of a deal; good teams like LSU play down to their competition from time to time, and teams like Syracuse are capable of playing up to their competition. And SU is also capable of laying eggs, which is what happened last week. So I don't think this team is any worse than it was a few weeks ago, I just think we're seeing different versions of it.

BP: To me, it feels like Syracuse is fading. I don't know if it was the "let down" from coming close against LSU, or if Syracuse has just been exposed, or what. Statistically, USF was performing awful offensively, even after playing worse defenses than Syracuse. Syracuse has struggled in areas where they normally excel. That is a sign of fading to me.

SK: I think we're coming to see that while we knew Rhode Island, Wake Forest and Central Michigan were bad, we didn't account for just how bad. CMU kinda showed us a little but but USF really showed what happens when good coaching and mediocre talent come together against SU. Uh-oh. I still think we have the ability to compete with Virginia, Pitt, NC State and Boston College but each of those teams could do to us what USF did (maybe not BC, but, you know).

What's the No. 1 thing SU has to change from the USF game?

JC: Even just playing defense could make a world of difference against UVa. But along those same lines, Syracuse's top priority should be attention to detail on defense. If that results in turnovers and tackles for loss, great. But I'd rather go back to square one instead. Use that attention to detail to simply play smarter -- so no dumb penalties or over-pursuing, and of course, wrapping up when tackling -- and I bet good things occur.

KW: Get the ball to the play-makers early and often. Syracuse needs to find ways to get Ishmael and Phillips involved and help Dungey get off to a good start. Spreading the ball around is great for youth sports, but the productive players need to touch the ball more. I'd like to see a lot less of the option this week.

BT: Stop biting on misdirection. The offense, while not amazing, was not bad in Tampa. They scored 24 points in the game, as they have in every game so far, at least. The defense, on the other hand, is being exposed for playing too aggressively and biting on every fake or misdirection an offense throws at it. If any coach lines up and runs straight at the SU defense at this point without misdirection, they should be fired on the spot. They have to resist the urge to bite, even if it costs them some occasional rushing yards in the process.

MB: Stop the run? Figure out how to tackle? Defend a screen pass? Don't get torched by receivers? Sorry, I can't pick just one, but there's a lot the defense has to fix from what we saw last week.

BP: Against Virginia, I think Syracuse needs to run the ball well and more often. Orange running backs only ran the ball ten times against USF. Yes, that may be because they were playing from behind the whole game, but that number is still way too low. This team has to establish the run to make the read-option and play action work effectively. Virginia is ranked 63rd in rushing defense, giving up 156 yards per game on the ground. The difference between winning and losing this week might be whether Syracuse exceeds that 156 yards on ground.

SK: Understand what your defensive deficiencies are and fix the ones that you can fix. Work on tackling, find cheats for the secondary, figure out screen defense. There are a lot of things to work on but figure out how to do as much as you can as soon as possible.

Is there a position/unit matchup that scares the crap out of you?

JC: Same as last game: our linebackers up against the short passing game. We knew we were susceptible. Now after USF, everyone else does too. If Syracuse is going to be outplayed like that in the flat again, they don't stand a chance. Hopefully after last week's embarrassing showing, there's a chance they slow down screens (UVA's running backs do catch balls out of the backfield). Given our inability to adjust quickly, you can forgive me for being terrified.

KW: Virginia throwing against the Syracuse secondary. Matt Johns was effective against Notre Dame and we know how much the Orange have struggled against the pass this year. You have to figure Virginia chooses to test SU through the air, but with a banged-up OL, you hope Ron Thompson and friends can get to Johns early and often.

BT: In this game? Not really. Virginia doesn’t seem to run the ball particularly well, or throw or catch the ball particularly well (they're decent passing, but not amazing). My concern is that, as has been the case most of the year, someone will have a career day against this defense. My guess is Taquan Mizzell. He caught eight passes for 100 yards against UCLA and another five for 123 against William and Mary, so I’ll put him down for nine catches and 135 yards receiving in this one.

MB: It isn't really particular to Virginia, but I'll go with the Hoos' passing attack against Syracuse's secondary. That unit has struggled throughout the season, and Matt Johns has put together a couple of quality performances this season. Nothing's to say he can't do the same against the Orange.

BP: UVa's passing attack against the Syracuse secondary. Virginia is passing for almost 250 yards a game and is a top 50 passing offense while playing against some big time defenses. Syracuse's defense is giving up just over 250 yards through the air per game and is the 98th ranked defense. At best, Syracuse will need to bend and not break against the passing game the way it did against Wake Forest to stop Matt Johns. Johns has thrown 7 interceptions this year, averaging 1.4 per game. Hopefully Syracuse can pick off a pass or two and flip the field or score on defense.

SK: Like most games, I'm always concerned about our secondary and Virginia's decent at passing and throwing touchdowns. They can't run for much so I expect them to test our secondary and, well, that usually doesn't end well.

What lessons can Syracuse take from the state of Virginia Football?

JC: Ahem: 1. Don't schedule yourself into the ground, rending a possibly talented team bowl-ineligible by Halloween. and 2. Recruiting success is all well and good, but if a coaching staff fails to use that talent to translate to wins, that's not a great formula for program success.

KW: Two things: 1) Stop scheduling hard non-conference games when you are trying to get a program back on track, and 2) Sometimes holding onto a coach too long can do more damage than a premature firing.

BT: Every lesson? Don't schedule three impossible non-conference games. Don't hold onto your coach because he's recruiting well even though you know he's terrible on the field. What's UVA's ceiling right now? Beating teams like Syracuse, Wake, and William and Mary? Congrats, but no thanks.

MB: To piggyback off what everyone else has said, there are two obvious lessons: don't schedule hard non-conference games and don't hold onto a coach just because he recruits well. Virginia consistently schedules difficult games, and it hasn't yet paid off. It's why we said scheduling LSU was stupid, which it was and will especially prove to be if Syracuse goes 5-7 and misses a bowl game because of it. And, yes, Shafer and his staff have recruited well, but that shouldn't excuse on-field disappointment, which is what Virignia has allowed to happen with Mike London.

BP: Don't hold on to a coach for too long. In 2011, second year head coach Mike London went 8-5 (5-3 in the ACC) and was given a two year contract extension, through the 2016 season. Virginia hasn't been bowl eligible since, yet London is still employed, largely because it was too expensive to buy him out. Now, he's the third highest paid coach in the ACC at $3.1 million a year behind only Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney, yet hasn't had a winning season in 4 years.

SK: Virginia's 2015 non-conference schedule is the stuff of my nightmares. This is probably a 6-6 team that will finish 3-9/4-8 because they over-scheduled. Also, as has been said, know when to say when. I appreciate the loyalty that Virginia has shown to London but he's clearly been there at least a season too long. Reminds me of when we held on to GERG for that fourth season.