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Syracuse vs Western Michigan football preview: Five things to watch

The Orange open their season versus an old friend... he who ran a questionable offense and yet has a better one at WMU.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Southern California
This is what happens when you say “Bubble Screens” 3 times.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Here we go! It’s week one, and the Syracuse Orange are taking on the Western Michigan Broncos. In case you couldn’t tell, Tim Lester, former ‘Cuse offensive coordinator and a man who helped take several years off John’s life, will be the head coach on WMU’s sidelines. This will be mentioned approximately 100 times, along with his former boss Scott Shafer, who bested the Orange last season.

Instead of focusing on that, let’s focus on five things that will actually be impactful for Dino Babers’s squad tomorrow night.

How well will this offensive line hold?

This year’s best version of the offensive line features three seniors and a redshirt junior, all of whom are expected to be among the top half of the ACC if healthy. Koda Martin and Cody Conway at the tackle spots should help a ton with pressure leaking into the backfield, and even redshirt sophomore center Airon Servias is experienced enough to make this unit a strength for the Orange. But ultimately, we’re talking in hypotheticals. This unit was banged up last year and never got healthy together (though the group we had out there did improve in certain spots over the course of the year).

WMU doesn’t have the greatest defense in the world, so this should be a perfect test. If the Orange are going to be successful, I’m looking for the line to hold most of WMU’s pressure and open up holes for the running game pretty consistently. To that end...

Is Eric Dungey actually going to run less?

A lot of this will come down to the above: if the offensive line holds, Dungey should be running less as he won’t have to roll out to evade pressure. As the optimist, I believe in the line, but I’m not sure three years of a habit will be broken in one offseason. Will we see Dungey with happy feet? Will he still look to take off if all options are covered after a few seconds? If the line holds, will Babers and Co. call more designed runs for Dungey? Not all of this will be answered, but I think we’ll start to get a decent idea.

Florida State v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Will any running back take a hold of the RB1 role?

It looks like the Orange have two backs ready to split time in Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal, apparently nicknamed Thunder and Lightning. We’ve seen two running backs work in plenty of other college programs and even at Syracuse (Jerome Smith/Prince-Tyson Gulley, anyone?). But I’m wondering if the double duty is because of the speed/snap counts of the system or because neither back has stepped up to the point that the staff feel comfortable handing out the number one label. Right now, Strickland is higher on the depth chart, so I’d love to see him have a statement game, taking control of that position.

If you look at last year’s numbers, he did start to find more success on the outside, both in the passing and run game. His blocking ability and proficiency at calling out opposing coverage schemes seem poised to keep him in the starting lineup as well.

What will the defense actually “look” like?

Originally, I was wondering what a 4-2-5 nickel was going to look like. Now, recent news seems to show a return to the 4-3 for at least this week. The popular theory seems to be that Brian Ward will alternate between the two based on the run/pass preference of the opposing offense, which is fine, but not ideal. (More on this in a minute). While ‘Cuse may open with a 4-3, they could switch to the nickel as the game progresses or this all may just be mind games from Babers. Regardless, we know the core of this year’s defense will come with Alton Robinson and Chris Slayton driving the pressure from the line, so I’m just intrigued to see which other players ::cough Antwan Cordy cough:: will do.

How does Lester and WMU attack the defense?

Conveniently, the days of whatever it was SU ran while he was here are behind Lester, as he really found a way to reinvent his offense with the Broncos. While we know that Jon Wassink is more of an efficiencient passer versus a big-play quarterback, it’s still unclear how exactly Lester will attack the Orange on the ground versus in the air.

If Ward really is truly intent on running two base formations based on the play type down, I can imagine Lester trying to run an uptempo offense out of a 3WR/1TE set, forcing Ward to commit to one formation that Lester will then attack appropriately.

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What else are you looking for this week? Who’s ready for real football?!