The No. 12 Syracuse Orange are (obviously) nationally ranked, in second place in the ACC Atlantic division, and are projected to make a pretty nice bowl game at the moment. This kind of success could be fleeting for the Orange and while we ponder the permanence of this, I wanted to take this time to answer the question many national media members, casual fans and maybe even die-hards are asking: How is Syracuse this good?
Coaches love to say that a team wins games with good special teams and winning the turnover battle. Syracuse is Exhibit A on just how good a team can get when it does these things consistently. ‘Cuse is currently plus-13 in turnovers, good for 4th in the country. They’ve definitely been the beneficiary of luck (their expected turnover margin via S&P+ is just +4, which would be 32nd in the country), but turnovers have led to an addition 4.5 points per game.
While turnovers may be a bit luck based, great special teams play is all skill. In all but punt returning, the Orange rank in the top 16 in all special teams based S&P+ statistics. Andre Szymt has been All-American quality; he’s 5th nationally in FG Value/Kick. Sterling Hofrichter is 6th in kickoff efficiency. Punting hasn’t been bad either, the Orange are 16th in punt efficiency (again, thanks, Hof!). While punt returning may be slightly above average, kick return efficiency is 13th in the country.
This has set the Orange up with the best offensive field position in the country and the seventh-best field position on defense. This is key to their 2018 success.
The Not So Obvious
What have the Orange done with that excellent field position? Neither offense nor defense is amazing (39th in S&P+ offense, 68th in defense), but there are elements that allow the Orange to make the most of their skills.
When the Orange have had to make plays, they have. They are 21st in Passing Down efficiency and 22nd in 3rd-and-long conversions (43.8%) on offense. This has led to 78% of ‘Cuse’s plays coming on 1st or 2nd down — the third best rate in the country. Couple this with a marginally explosive team (24th in the country), and, for lack of a better term, the offensive can “make sh*t happen.”
Defensively, Brian Ward’s group has been excellent, when push comes to shove, in passing situations. They are first in the country in 3rd-and-long success rate (11.7%) and 4th in 3rd-and-medium success rate (34.5%). Why have they been so successful? The Orange blitz has been superb, holding teams to just 14.4% success on blitzing downs, the best mark in the country.
What’s Holding the Team Back?
Obviously, ‘Cuse is not perfect. What’s holding the Orange from true elite status? Aside from just “getting better” overall on both offense and defense, the red zone offense has left far too many points on the board. Syracuse is only converting 45.8% of their trips inside the ten into touchdowns (100th). Push that back to the 21-30 yard lines? That touchdown rate is just 39.1%, 76th in the country.
On defense, SU has given up too many big plays. They’re 102nd in Isolated Points Per Play allowed and 99th in Marginal Explosiveness. If they’re not blitzing or turning the ball over, there is a lot of offense happening.
So there you have it: ‘Cuse is good. Not fake good, but legit good in a lot of ways. They aren’t perfect, but there are legitimate steps the team can take going forward to grow. It’s an exciting time to be an Orange fan.