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Syracuse vs. Clemson preview: Five things to watch

You’re watching. But what are you watching BEFORE you’re watching?

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

After a bye week, the Syracuse Orange (4-4, 2-2) are back in action this weekend. They’ll need the rest too, as they head down to South Carolina to face the no. 2 Clemson Tigers (8-0, 5-0) on Saturday afternoon. The Tigers are pretty heavily favored in this one, but they were the last two years, and SU at least made a game of it.

So what should we be on the lookout for going into this challenging matchup between Syracuse and Clemson? We identify five below:

1. Protect Eric Dungey

Easier said than done, of course, but Syracuse needs to find a way to give Dungey time to throw if they stand any chance of keeping pace with the Tigers. Under pressure, the sophomore is a completely different (worse) passer, so even buying him another second to deliver a pass could mean a world of difference against Clemson.

The Tigers present some issues in that department, though. Clemson’s second in the nation in sacks with 31, and the pressure comes from absolutely everywhere -- especially the interior of the line, a rarity for an effective pass rush.

Carlos Watkins is the big name to worry about with 4.5 sacks to his name, but doubling him up will only open holes for one of the other talented defenders. Ten different Tigers have over one sack on the year already. Even if the Orange protect Dungey better, it’s likely this talented Tigers front adds to their total.

2. Clemson’s likely to turn the ball over

Ball security’s not necessarily the Tigers’ specialty in 2016. Through eight games, they have 18 turnovers, including eight fumbles. Coincidentally, Syracuse has been able to force fumbles this year, with eight so far (in the top third in the country).

On top of fumbles, Clemson QB Deshaun Watson’s also accounted for his fair share of interceptions over the course of his career (10 this year, 13 last year), which presents additional chances for an increasingly opportunistic Orange defense to flip the field. Julian Whigham took a look at how teams have been able to bait Watson into turnovers this year, which is worth a read for those that haven’t already done so. Syracuse will be presented chances, but that’s half the battle. One would think SU needs at least a plus-two turnover margin to really start entertaining any upset talk.

3. Syracuse needs to apply balanced pressure

The Tigers’ offensive line has protected Watson pretty well this year (just 11 sacks allowed), but part of that is due to the quarterback’s athleticism too. Syracuse will need to find ways to apply more pressure this week without losing containment on one of college football’s best athletes. That’s no easy task, as we can attest to in some previous contests against mobile quarterbacks (and some not so mobile ones... hi, Patrick Towles).

Syracuse kept a reasonable amount of containment on Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans (61 rushing yards) with a moderate pass rush and periodic employment of a spy at linebacker. The Orange linebackers (especially Zaire Franklin) also managed to find creative ways to blitz, apply coverage pressure and get into passing lanes.

Watson’s a better player than Evans right now, but that general blueprint could still yield some quality results here. The Orange defense will need to find ways to apply conservative pressure while not selling out and giving up the big gains they’ve managed to reduce in recent weeks. Despite recent improvement in this department, SU is still one of the worst teams in the country at allowing gains of 20 yards or more (47 so far — 105th in the FBS).

4. Can the Orange stop the run?

Clemson’s offense is not limited to Watson and the passing game at all. Despite the step back by the rushing attack from 2015, the Tigers running backs are still a formidable group led by Wayne Gallman. Gallman’s averaging 5.2 yards per rush. That’s a pretty bad combination with Syracuse’s run defense, which allows 4.98 yards per carry (one of the 30 worst figures in the nation).

The best hope for Syracuse there is starting fast and forcing Clemson to pass to keep up. Removing the run from Virginia Tech’s gameplan worked wonders against the Hokies, and held Tech to one of the lowest opposing rushing totals of the season for SU. While the teams were tied at one point in the second half, Virginia Tech’s reliance on Evans ended up being detrimental to the offense functioning properly. Again, Watson presents a very different running threat than Evans, and his abilities there could more than make up for Gallman potentially getting stymied. But forcing Watson to be the team’s primary playmaker is still a better proposition than beating a multi-faceted Tigers attack.

5. Will tempo help or hurt Syracuse?

In the previous section, we mentioned Syracuse’s offense starting fast could yield positive results for the SU defense. While that’s a possibility, pulling Clemson into a shootout is far from a sure thing for an improbable Orange victory. The Tigers may no longer run at the pace they did with Chad Morris running the offense, but they’re still among the 30 or 40 quickest teams in the country, in terms of total plays run.

Those plays are also run with more talented (faster) athletes across the board -- something that games against Louisville, USF and Notre Dame have proven to be a problematic for the undermanned Syracuse defense. Forcing a team of similar or lesser talent like Boston College or UConn to play at a quicker pace than normal can create issues for the opponent. Forcing a more talented (especially at the skill positions) team to play at pace could put the Syracuse defense at a distinct disadvantage.

Still, this tactic’s the only choice for the Orange. As we’ve seen in some of the rougher games of the season, they can be ineffective when slowed down (by weather, opposing defenses or both). And letting Clemson lean on Gallman to run and push the SU defensive line is an easy strategy to lose this one. As we saw against Notre Dame, tempo could dig this team’s grave. But it’s also likely to keep Syracuse around a lot longer, too, even if the game ultimately ends in defeat.

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These are some starting points for conversation, but plenty of other angles to take a look at, too. Any more key matchups or narratives you’re focused in on in advance of Syracuse’s game against Clemson? Weigh in below.