We can watch the 2017 Extended Cut highlight video forever, but come Saturday, the Syracuse Orange (4-0, 1-0) and Clemson Tigers (4-0, 1-0) will play the 2018 edition of this recurring game, and this year’s Orange team is far more interesting than the one that felled the eventual ACC Champions.
Ultimately, this feels like a measuring stick game. While most don’t expect a ‘Cuse win, how the Orange handle themselves will determine the fan reaction after the game. So what are some of those measuring sticks? Glad you asked!
Just how well does the offensive line play versus Clemson’s defensive line?
To date, the Syracuse offensive line has looked mostly just as strong as we thought they’d be preseason. The rushing game is averaging 5.3 yards per carry and has given up seven sacks (not amazing, but an improvement). This Saturday, that unit will be challenged by arguably the most talented defensive line in the country. If it was just Clelin Ferrell, I’d still say this was the biggest challenge to date; now add in Austin Bryant, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins for a full line that can play at the next level. We had these same concerns last year, and for one game ‘Cuse had the best game of their lives. That kind of effort is more than likely needed Saturday.
Can special teams swing the field position battle?
To date, Syracuse has been the best field position team in the country, living in opponents’ side of the field and using special teams to build that advantage, along with an amazing third down defense. I’m willing to bet that Clemson is more effective than most on third downs, so it’s up to special teams to prove that this isn't some fluke. (Reigning ACC special teams player of the week) Sean Riley can be lethal on returns and Sterling Hofrichter has had some bombs from the punter position. They’ll both need to be on their A game.
Do the drops finally catch up to the receiving corps?
Originally, I was going to ask if Eric Dungey had another gear, before looking at his numbers and realizing he's at that next level right now. His numbers (763 yards on 63.7 percent passing, with 9 TDs and just one interception) would look even better if the receivers at ‘Cuse didn’t have so many drops, especially on big plays. That hasn’t come back to truly bite the Orange yet, and there have been gradual improvements each week. I just have a nightmare scenario of Jamal Custis dropping a Dungey 60-yard bomb that sets the tone for the game. Don’t think that’s too farfetched. Just look at the last two weeks...
Just how good is Syracuse’s front four?
We gushed about Clemson’s defensive line, but I have not forgotten about Syracuse’s own defensive line that has looked significantly improved since week one. Last year, the D-line caused havoc for Clemson’s passing game with a consistent blitz, and I’d argue this year’s front four is better than that (especially because they’re actually healthy). With 10 sacks from the line already (13 overall), can they at least collapse the pocket on passing downs? Will they be able to limit Travis Etienne like they did Cam Akers?
Notably, newly anointed Clemson starter Trevor Lawrence isn’t as mobile as Kelly Bryant was. That doesn’t mean he’s going to be sacked a ton (they’ve only allowed four all year). It just means the Tigers’ like has to do a little more work to keep him protected than they would have with Bryant.
Is Moe Neal the RB1?
Finally, how much more of Moe Neal as the running back do we see? It sure feels like Neal has surpassed Dontae Strickland as the No. 1 back, even if the depth chart has that “OR.” In a game where every snap is going to matter, who does the staff trust more out there? And do they have plans to incorporate Strickland elsewhere if it’s not in the backfield? (hopefully at slot receiver?) This seems like the only true “question area” left on ‘Cuse’s roster and based on Dino Babers’s commentary on the ACC coaches teleconference, it doesn’t necessarily seem like it’s settled just yet.