The Syracuse Orange broke a 17-year unranked streak, are staring down the barrel of a tier-1 ACC Bowl, and have fans legitimately excited about this program again.
This season has been a bit of surprise, and a few weeks ago, I wrote about the reasons ‘Cuse has had success. Some of those reasons are unique to this season (turnovers), but others are a blueprint for success Orange teams that may not have the elite depth or talent, but still enough skill around the roster to be in the top quarter of the ACC.
What is that foundation? I’ve got three factors identified.
Special Teams Tilting the Field
The Orange had the No. 1 special teams unit accordion to S&P+, with both their kicker and punter making first-team all conference. This led to the top offensive field position in the country, and ensuring that even a pretty remarkably terrible red zone offense (102nd inside the 10) was still able to consistently salvage points. Add in top-25 punt and kickoff return games, and the Orange had a complete special teams unit.
To-date, Syracuse has rarely actively recruited the best punter and kickers in the country (though Sterling Hofrichter was and has certainly lived up to his billing). The majority of recent special teams standouts have been developmental players, and SU now has the reputation of a “Special Teams University,” at least if you believe what we’re typically pushingon Twitter. If SU looks even more actively into recruiting the best players for the position group, watch out.
Bend Don’t Break Defense
Syracuse’s 61st-ranked defense isn’t going to turn heads. What did was just how successful the Orange were able to be while still allowing too many explosive plays, as they were 96th in marginal rushing and 101st in marginal passing explosiveness. They were able to counter this with an aggressive blitz; they finished the season third in the country in blitzing down success rate, and 3rd and 6th, respectively, in third-and-long and third-and-medium defense.
Say an opponent was able make big plays and avoid the Orange blitz into the red zone; ‘Cuse held teams to just 27.1% success between the 11- and 20-yard lines (12th), and 40% inside the 10-yard line (21st). To put it more plainly; it was really hard to score touchdowns against the Orange defense in the red zone, and you needed to make explosive plays to get there.
This is exactly the kind of defense Dino Babers preached upon his hiring. The defense was aggressive, forcing turnover chances the Orange took advantage of.
Explosive, Aggressive Offense
The Orange offense was ranked 46th overall, but only 62nd in passing according to S&P+. When the Orange were in passing downs, they were able to make effective, explosive plays. They were 23rd in passing explosiveness and passing down success.
On passing downs, they were 17th in explosiveness, which was helpful when the Orange found themselves in that situation. 74.5% of the ‘Cuse offense took place on first or second down, the 18th-best mark in the country. The emergence of a non-Eric Dungey running game in ACC play really opened up the rest of the offense.
So there you go: The basic blueprint for a successful Syracuse football team, outside of a generational, NFL talent at a key position. They may not be in the elite class of college football, but this is the recipe to be more than a trap game against those teams and take care of business in the rest of the schedule.