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Syracuse vs. Central Connecticut State: Five things to watch

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An actual game preview about an actual game.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

There’s actually football happening this Friday, when the Syracuse Orange take on the Central Connecticut State Blue Devils in each team’s first game. As you know, SU’s coming off a 4-8 campaign last year, and CCSU’ 2016 was actually worse at 2-9. This should be a runaway victory, but you know how these things can work at times.

So what should we be on the lookout for going into Syracuse’s matchup with the Blue Devils? We identify five things below:

1. Central Connecticut’s one-dimensional offense

In 2016, CCSU simply couldn’t run the football. The Blue Devils were even worse than Syracuse in that regard, averaging just 91 yards per game, and managing just 49 rushing first downs all season (and just three yards per attempt). Senior Cameron Nash returns after leading the team with 632 yards (4.2 per rush) last season. He’ll have some help moving the ball in between the tackles this year with a couple 200-pound backs. But this is still very much a passing team.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

2. How much will Syracuse open up the passing game in week one?

The Orange were 11th in the country in terms of passing yards per game last year, including a season-high 440 in the finale vs. Pittsburgh. Dino Babers is unlikely to give away the full formula for the year in the first contest, but fans likely want to see a few more fireworks than we did during 2016’s 33-7 victory over Colgate.

There’s also the matter of breaking in some new pieces to the offense — some freshmen, particularly -- as well as figuring out how the group adapts without Amba Etta-Tawo around. Given CCSU’s struggles stopping the pass (96th in the FCS last year), it would seem natural to test them early and often.

3. Will the Orange secondary show signs of a rebound?

Returns from the spring game and the couple scrimmages SU ran this summer may point to yes. But we’ll need to see some game action for real proof. Junior Blue Devils QB Jacob Dolegala hit on 60 percent of his passes for 2,934 yards, 15 touchdowns and nine picks. Plus, his top four targets all return from last year.

Despite imbalance between FCS and FBS, Central Connecticut should still be able to move the football a bit through the air, as they did much of last year. It’ll be on the deep and experienced (though unproven) Orange defensive backs to keep him in check. They’ll also be looking for some quick signs of improvement after last year’s poor performance. Health and some JUCO additions should lend a hand there.

4. Syracuse should show a little more of a pass-rush this season

The Orange were one of the worst pass-rushing teams in the country in 2016, which lent heavily to opponents shredding them in that department. Scott Shafer’s old defenses were fairly aggressive from all parts of the field, but the Tampa-2 doesn’t blitz nearly as much. The personnel-to-scheme fit was obviously a mismatch at times, hence why SU only collected 16 sacks.

That dynamic should change this season, however, starting with this first game. Along with returning talents like Josh Black and Kendall Coleman along the line, Brian Ward will be working with a few more players that can generate pressure too. JUCO transfers Shaq Grosvenor, Brandon Berry, Alton Robinson and Ryan Guthrie all excelled there in one way or another last year. Inserting that experience should pay huge dividends toward pressuring QBs a bit more.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

5. What type of improvement will the Syracuse run game show?

Dontae Strickland said the rushing attack’s going to start with him this year, but we’ll have to see how the backfield sorts itself out in game one. Averaging 3.2 yards per carry won’t cut it for this group if they want success against better opponents. It also may not help against Central Connecticut, which held opponents to 4.2 yards per carry — not bad, considering how bad the defense was overall last year.

We know Strickland will start with the ball, but Moe Neal and Markenzy Pierre probably see carries as well. Depending on how quickly this one is decided, the younger players could end up with plenty of carries. It’ll be interesting to observe the rushing attack as well for how the interior offensive linemen are opening holes. There’s a lot of youth and inexperience at guard and center right now. Them succeeding quickly will be paramount for the Orange.

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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 Central Connecticut? Weigh in below.