The Syracuse Orange are 3-3 (1-1 in the ACC) after a needed win over Pittsburgh last week. Their reward? Facing the No. 2 Clemson Tigers (6-0) at the Carrir Dome on Friday night. Our last four meetings with Clemson haven’t gone particularly well ON the field. But we’ve managed to get some quality jokes (and garbage!) out of the experience nonetheless.
Since we’re certainly not Tigers fans (phew!), we went ahead and asked a fan about what to expect in this game. Mark Gordon from SB Nation’s Shakin the Southland joins us to chat all about Clemson. We answered some questions over there as well.
How's this season been as defending champs? Do you feel like there's more or less pressure on the team now as a result?
It’s never easy to follow up a National Championship season without adding pressure to the new group of players, but Dabo Swinney has preached to his players that last year’s season was just that, last season, and that they need to create their own legacy. It may seem like coach speak, but it seemed that the players have bought into the message. Without Deshaun Watson at the helm, the offense has a new identity and the team has become more of a run heavy offense that relies on the defense to put games away. The pressure is most certainly there, but so far, the team has exceeded my expectations in how they have handled with such a young group.
Obviously the offense looks very different without Deshaun Watson (and others) this year. What does this year's attack do better than 2016? Worse?
Clemson fans really had no idea what to expect out of the quarterback position as there was a three-horse race that went well into the spring/summer camps before Kelly Bryant was eventually named the starter prior to the season. Bryant clearly doesn’t have the downfield accuracy that Watson brought to the table, so you will see Clemson take fewer deep shots to Deon Cain than in the past. The one thing that people tend to ignore about Kelly Bryant is that he actually is a better runner than Watson. He is just as elusive and has more power to break tackles for longer gains. It may seem scary, but the quarterback run option of the Clemson offense has improved since the departure of Watson.
Clemson's defensive front is arguably the best in the country. Is there anything specific about the scheme that makes it so tough to stop, or is it just a product of pure talent?
The talent is obviously there, but I give Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables a ton of credit for his defensive scheme, which creates pressure without leaving his defensive backs out on an island. You will see a variety of blitzes during the game which includes sending both linebackers through the A-Gap, while dropping the defensive ends into coverage to take away the short passing game. You will see a variety of these blitzes cleverly disguised in order to keep Eric Dungey on his toes.
Dabo Swinney doesn't seem worried about Kelly Bryant's ankle, but are Tigers fans?
They seem to be keeping the potential severity of Bryant’s injury under their hats, but this is definitely a concern with myself and a majority of the Clemson fans.
The offense is specifically tailored to using Kelly Bryant in the run game, as he rushes the ball over 15 times per game, on average. After the injury last week, Redshirt Freshman Zerrick Cooper did not perform well, completing only 2 of his 6 passes while missing open receivers, while true freshman Hunter Johnson looked more than capable of handling the role, completing all 5 of his pass attempts and throwing for his first touchdown. If Bryant can’t go, I expect the two backups to split reps, which is never ideal in trying to gain offensive consistency. This is definitely something that Syracuse fans should keep their eyes on, and a major factor in how the game can turn out.
Beyond Eric Dungey, who's one player Clemson is paying close attention to while prepping for this game?
The Clemson coaching staff and fans will need to keep both eyes on senior WR Steve Ishmael. Ishmael looks to have turned into Dungey’s favorite target as he has already amassed over 700 receiving yards on the season. I expect Clemson to play him in press coverage with a safety overtop for help if Ishmael gets lose. All eyes will be on stopping Dungey in both the passing and run game, and the team’s ability to shut down Ishmael will be key in keeping Syracuse off the board this week.
Is there an unsung Tigers player (on either side of the ball) that we should know a bit more about in advance?
The defensive front seven, rightfully so, gets so much attention in regards to the defensive success of the unit, but the true unsung heroes of the defense this season are the secondary, specifically senior cornerback Ryan Carter. Carter has been a lockdown cornerback all year, giving Venables and the defense more freedom to send linebackers and safeties in the blitz game. Clemson has been injury prone in the secondary this season, losing Trayvon Mullen and Marcus Edmonds for extended periods of time, so the consistency of Ryan Carter has been beyond important for the Tiger defense this season.
Prediction time: What happens in this game, and how?
It is really difficult to know how this game is going to pan out until we know for sure whether Kelly Bryant will play this week. But even if he does, he will be limited in the run game, which severely limits the Tigers playbook. With Syracuse playing both LSU and NC State in close games, I expect this one to be no different and come down to adjustments in the second half. I have Clemson pulling out a 31-17 victory on Friday night.