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Syracuse vs. Middle Tennessee: Five things to watch

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Not making this ENTIRE thing about Shafer, promise.

Central Connecticut State v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange (1-0) host game two of the 2017 season this Saturday, when the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (0-1) come to town. SU took care of business vs. Central Connecticut last week, while MTSU was held in check by Vanderbilt. But just like a season-opening win may not be indicative of much, you could say the same about a season-opening loss.

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

1. Middle Tennessee’s pass defense might look like the Orange’s old pass defense

MTSU’s pass defense was in the bottom third of the country last year, allowing nearly 251 yards per game. In game one this year — against a so-so Vanderbilt offense — the Blue Raiders allowed even more yards (298) and a huge 10.6 yards per attempt. That’s probably not a great sign against one of the country’s top-15 passing attacks in Syracuse.

Orange quarterback Eric Dungey has seen this defense before in practice, even if it was made up of different (likely a little better) players. He understands where the gaps in coverage lie, and what can exploit while throwing the football. After completing just 54.4 percent of his passes in 2016, Commodores QB Kyle Shurmur hit 71 percent last Saturday. Dungey, who made 77.8 percent of his throws last week, could excel against this group.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

2. And what about the Blue Raiders’ pass rush?

A senior-led team tallied 26 sacks last year, but nearly half of those are out the door. Game one featured just one sack by junior Walter Brady. Middle Tennessee did grab five tackles for loss, however. If this defense is going to eventually look like Syracuse’s under Scott Shafer, it’s going to rely on a blitz from spots other than the line to truly be effective.

We may already see who’s going to step up after the Vanderbilt opener. Four of the top five tacklers for the Blue Raiders are either linebackers or defensive backs (not uncommon). But there’s hints of some of those players getting more involved in generating pressure. Seniors like Alex Dale, D.J. Sanders and Mike Minter Jr. already picked up tackles for loss. Those capabilities could grow.

3. Syracuse’s potentially renewed blitz vs. a green O-line

Three Middle Tennessee offensive line starters (Daniel Stephens, Josh Chester, Maurquice Shakir) have all departed, and game one already showed the issues that can create. The Blue Raiders allowed five sacks to Vandy, after allowing just 14 all last season.

No one’s saying Syracuse’s pass rush is similar to Vanderbilt’s. But the team was able to generate a reasonable amount of pressure last week both from the edge (players like Kingsley Johnathan) and interior (Chris Slayton). An inexperienced FBS line should be better than even an experienced FCS offensive line. But if the Orange commit to blitzing the way the team’s new personnel seems to indicate, MTSU could be on their heels for the afternoon.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

4. Another one-dimensional offensive foe

Last week’s opponent couldn’t really run the ball, and it appears that Middle Tennessee’s no different, at least after its showing against Vanderbilt. Replacing I'Tavius Mathers at running back has so far proven difficult, especially given the aforementioned offensive line woes. The team ran for just 49 yards on 26 carries.

Brent Stockstill and Middle Tennessee’s passing attack didn’t look much better against the Commodores, but given previous results from this offense, that’s unlikely to remain the case. Syracuse’s pass defense hasn’t shown us much yet to put last year’s struggles aside. But with run game doubts, stopping the pass will be the key to an Orange victory.

5. Who handles punt returns for Syracuse (and how effective can they be)?

With Brisly Estime gone, we figured the Orange would be starting over on punt returns -- one redeeming factor in the field position game they regularly struggled in last year -- and that came to fruition right away against Central Connecticut last week. Sean Riley gained five yards on four returns while taking a few big hits. Steve Ishmael took one bigger tackle after a two-yard gain in his one attempt.

Those two will be handling things again this week, against a much better coverage unit. Middle Tennessee was one of the best in the country defending punts last year (just 4.25 yards allowed per return). Riley and Ishmael will have to combat that with some savvier run-backs. Or perhaps Nykeim Johnson gets to try his hand at it?

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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 Middle Tennessee? Weigh in below.