The Syracuse Orange football program had a breakout year in 2018. Reaching 10 wins is a big deal around these parts, and the Orange had a lot of key markers for success. However, there were a few specific areas where remarkable improvement helped accelerate the Orange rebuild and take advantage of the talent Dino Babers and his staff have assembled.
I want to take a look at the three biggest factors and see if we should reasonably expect success to continue.
This was one of the biggest strengths of the Orange, period. Andre Cisco tied for the country lead with seven interceptions, the team was third in the country with 31 total takeaways, and had an overall margin of plus-18. John already wrote extensively about this earlier, so go read his piece. Back? Great. The Orange shouldn’t be counted on to be that dominant again. However, regression here won’t kill the team, since there should still be a positive performance from the defense.
Third Down Defense
Speaking of Brian Ward’s unit, last year’s third down defense was a huge key in close games for ‘Cuse. The defense had the country’s second best third and long conversion rate (13.5%) and a top 20 3rd and medium conversion rate (39.5%). Why? The Orange pass-rush was one of the best in the FBS, thanks in large part to the front four on the defensive line. Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman led the team with 10 sacks each, both returning this year. Add in a secondary led by a sophomore All-American and a strong core of athletic sophomores and juniors; The Orange should remain one of the best third down defenses in the country.
Special Teams Dominance
Special teams are weird. On paper, the Orange return the country’s best kicker (Andre Szymt), the ACC’s best punter (Sterling Hofrichter) and an above average returner (Sean Riley). A big piece is trusting the Orange to continue to cycle young, up-and-comers with veterans on coverage and blocking kicks, so we trust special teams coach Justin Lustig? At this point, I definitely do, but I also acknowledge it’s not an exact science. I would expect special teams to be very good. If they’re excellent again — as we saw last year — it will go a long way for the Orange once more.
Obviously, the Orange were good at more than just these three aspects of the game. But they were X-factors that helped elevate the team over a mediocre ACC and win big games vs. NC State and West Virginia, while staying close with Clemson. By all predictive tools, they should remain competitive in these areas, which bodes well for a successful SU campaign in 2019.