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Syracuse vs. Clemson football preview: Q&A with Shakin the Southland


NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange are off to a running start in 2018, currently sitting at a comfortable 4-0. We’ll see if the good vibes can continue, however, as SU heads south to face the Clemson Tigers in a rematch of last year’s thrilling upset.

Since we’re not Clemson fans, we went ahead and asked one about what to expect in this game. Shakin the Southland’s Ryan Kantor (who you can follow on Twitter) joins us to talk about the Tigers. We also provided some responses over there, which you can check out here.

Wanted to start by thanking you guys for last year’s game. It was a lot of fun on our end, especially after the season took a turn for the worst following the win. That’s not necessarily a question. Just a comment.

At least you enjoyed it. Nothing is worse than losing to a fan base who has no appreciation for it and just goes about their day. One Syracuse player likened it to his own triumph over cancer. That’s kinda cool.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Travis Etienne has run the ball very well this season. Is he significantly better? Or is there something else helping him along there?

Travis Etienne averaged 7.2 yards per carry last season and amazingly that number has increased to 8.5 yards per carry in the early going this season! That’s credit to his own maturation and improvement, adding muscle and gaining a better understanding of the playbook. It’s also credit to the playmakers around him improving and making his job easier. Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross have helped the Tigers take the top off opposing defenses. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve faced an FCS team followed by the 58th (Texas A&M), 91st (Georgia Southern), and 86th (Georgia Tech) best defenses in the country per S&P+.

What sets Trevor Lawrence apart from Kelly Bryant as the Tigers’ QB? And are fans confident in going with him over Bryant as the starter?

I think fans are generally excited to see Trevor Lawrence on the field more often. His ceiling is so high and some of the throws he makes are incredible. Kelly Bryant appears extremely well-liked by his teammates and is a solid QB, however Lawrence is clearly the better passer. Lawrence has a quicker release which opens up the screen game, and he has a better deep ball that allows Clemson to take advantage of their talented WR corps. The Tigers are far better on passing downs with Lawrence at the helm. Against elite opponents like Ohio State, Georgia, Penn State, and especially Alabama we need someone who can beat the defense through the air. The change is very forward-looking in that regard.

With Bryant’s decision to transfer, Clemson is a bit thin at QB behind Lawrence, so staying healthy becomes especially important. Chase Brice was a strong recruit and is someone with whom we could win a lot of ACC games, but he was behind Bryant and Lawrence for a reason. It’s a shame Bryant transferred because I think he would have received snaps in non-garbage time and would have been a great red zone threat.

This game certainly became more intriguing with all the QB news this week. It would be great to see Clemson’s offense make a statement.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Dungey played very well against Clemson last year. Where did the Tigers struggle most stopping him, and how will they be approaching things differently in 2018?

The first half of last year’s game was riddled with silly miscues like missed tackles and safety busts. Clemson went into the half down 14-17. By that time Clemson’s offense was without their QB and sputtering badly. Although the Tigers sacked Dungey six times, he still tallied 61 yards rushing. His ability to extend drives and eat clock killed the Tigers when their offense needed as many opportunities as possible. He also showed amazing toughness to keep getting up after getting hit time after time.

He definitely earned a ton of respect in that performance. Shakin the Southland ranked him as the second-best QB in the ACC coming into the season and that projection has looked good so far. Expect the linebackers to focus on containing him better this time around.

The biggest problem in last year’s game was really the offense though. Once you subtract the “scoop-and-score” TD off the fumble, you see that Clemson’s offense only scored 17 points. Obviously the biggest factor in that was the lack of QB depth and the injuries to Bryant that stymied the offense. Bryant was playing with a lower body injury limiting his mobility. After he was knocked out with a concussion, Zerrick Cooper entered and the offensive struggles continued. Zerrick Cooper is now at Jacksonville State. Both Trevor Lawrence and the healthy 2018 edition of Kelly Bryant are leaps and bounds above the Clemson QBs who played in the game a year ago.

This question traces back to the offseason: How surprised were you when the D-line said it was coming back, and do you feel like they’ve lived up to their stratospheric reputation so far?

Dexter Lawrence was a rising junior so we knew he would return, but the other three all could have gone to the NFL draft and likely would have been taken in the first half of it. It was beneficial for Clemson that none of them received first round draft grades. I figured one or even two would return, but I think the camaraderie and brotherhood (not to mention the draft insurance that schools can now provide to these players) made the difference in getting all three. Those years in Clemson are special and you never get them back.I don’t think they’ve lived up to the huge expectations yet, but it’s not totally their fault.

Against Texas A&M, the referees were slow to call holding and the Aggie offensive line wisely took advantage. The Tiger D-line was definitely disruptive, but the opposing O-line gave the slippery QB Kellen Mond just enough time to escape their grasp. The other three opponents we’ve played have run the triple-option and were promptly shut down. You don’t get the flashy numbers from a defensive line until you face a passing attack like Syracuse or NC State so we’ll start seeing the more telling matchups now.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse and Clemson are both 4-0 coming into this matchup. Does it seem weird? Or is this the internet rivalry-turned-real-conference-rivalry that was always meant to be?

Given the schedules, the real shocker is that Florida State is just so darn awful. That’s not to take anything away from your dominant victory. Enjoy it... but they STINK!

Our weird rivalry was borne out of Clemson fans not being thrilled to add a northern basketball school, Syracuse fans seeming less than thrilled to join the ACC, and some comments from the Syracuse coaches that rustled our sensitive feathers (Boehiem’s Denny’s comment and Shafer’s soft nose comment in particular).

Now that Syracuse has moved on to Dino Babers and is beginning to pull some weight in football, the disdain is largely gone from our hearts. Heck, you’re almost likeable! It also helps that Coach Dave Doeren over at NC State is the new target of our fans’ internet fury after some very poorly worded comments of his own following recent Textile Bowl thrillers (appearing happy about injuring Wayne Gallman and accusing Clemson of cheating with a laptop on the sidelines).

On paper, Clemson doesn’t appear to have many flaws. But pick one for us, if you could, and tell us how that might factor into Saturday’s game.

I’m anxious to see if the secondary can perform well against a good passer in an up-tempo offense. Clemson hasn’t faced an up-tempo spread offense like Syracuse. When Texas A&M began relying on QB Kellen Mond to get out of the pocket, extend plays, and create, they started scoring. Eric Dungey is the type of QB that can do the same. With three of our first four games coming against triple-option offenses, I think Syracuse catches Clemson at a good time. They’ll test Clemson’s pass defense over the middle and deep and they may find vulnerabilities. We just haven’t had the opportunities yet to grow and improve so while I’m worried, I’m also glad Syracuse is a quality opponent who will test us and help us get better.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s the most concerning Orange player for Clemson, other than Eric Dungey?

WR Jamal Custis will be key if Dungey is going to stretch the Clemson defense out deep and then establish a running attack himself or with Moe Neal.

Name one unsung Tigers player SU should get a little more acquainted with.

Your readers likely know about slot receiver WR Hunter Renfrow. They may not know about sophomore WR Tee Higgins or true freshman WR Justyn Ross. These players have already earned themselves a major role in the offense and have been burning teams deep. The explosiveness they’ve added to the offense gives Clemson far more upside.

Prediction time: What’s the final score in this one, and how does it happen?

As we discussed, I think the Clemson offense had some issues in last year’s game that shouldn’t reoccur in this one. I’m not yet convinced that Syracuse has found their footing defensively. They may be a bit better, but I think this is a game where QB Trevor Lawrence makes a statement. Conversely, I think Eric Dungey is really good and Syracuse puts up a decent offensive showing… 42-21 Clemson.


Thanks again to Ryan for taking the time out to answer these. Be sure to follow Shakin the Southland and check out the site too, for all things Clemson.