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

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We’re not rivals, but this series has become a fun one over the years.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange (1-1, 0-0) finally head home for the first tiem this season, and welcoming them back to the Dome will be the top-ranked Clemson Tigers (2-0, 1-0). As you know, the past couple iterations of this matchup have come down to the wire. Last week’s SU result may have taken some shine off this specific game, but it’s still a big game for both teams.

Since we’re (thankfully) not Clemson fans, we went ahead and asked one what to expect in this game. Shakin the Southland’s Tom Dianora (who you can follow on Twitter) joins us to share more about the Tigers. We also answer some questions over there, which you can check out here, if you missed yesterday.

Walk us through your feelings from last year’s game. Did Clemson fans feel they’d pull it off the whole time? Or was there legitimate fear for much of the game that Syracuse was going to pull the upset?

It was a real roller-coaster of emotions. Probably like many Clemson fans, I was a bit annoyed with how things were going in the first half but not truly concerned until Trevor Lawrence got knocked out of the game and was then ruled out for the remainder of it. After seeing Chase Brice literally and figuratively trip over himself and miss horribly on a number of throws soon after coming in, I was resigned to Clemson losing the game, even moving past the frustration of losing to Syracuse two years in a row and instead thinking about how grateful I was for the incredible run they had put together over the past few years.

But then Clemson’s defense began to lock down Eric Dungey and company in the second half, and an A.J. Terrell interception and subsequent field goal to bring the score to 16-13 had me feeling like there was new hope. Then an Amari Rodgers muffed punt that led to a Syracuse touchdown pushed the deficit to 10, and I was back to sad resignation.

But, to paraphrase the only good part of The Godfather Part III, just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in, cutting the deficit back to three at 23-20. Of course, when Clemson later faced a 4th-&-6 at midfield with under three minutes left, I didn’t exactly feel confident that Brice could convert it, and it was too long to call a run even with how effective Etienne was for the entire game. But then (not to induce any PTSD for you and Syracuse fans), Brice delivered a 20-yard missile to Tee Higgins for the first down. I knew at that point that a win was a foregone conclusion.

Besides destroying Alabama to win the national championship, this was the emotional high point of the season. I truly feel it was a turning point — a win that galvanized the team. That was clear in that Clemson won all of its remaining 10 games by at least 20 points. And Brice earned an eternal place in Clemson lore.

I know that was probably more detail than what you were looking for, but the game was so tumultuous with so many key moments that I felt my journey of emotions warranted that level of a recap.

Syracuse v Clemson Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

What’s been the most annoying/unsettling aspect of this series since SU joined the ACC?

Having a team in Clemson’s division that also uses orange as its primary color! Just kidding... the obvious answer is that Syracuse has proven to be an unexpected thorn in Clemson’s side. We all know about the game last year and the upset in the Carrier Dome the previous season, but even Clemson’s trip to Syracuse in 2015 resulted in a too-close-to comfort 37-27 win when the Tigers and Deshaun Watson were trying to keep their undefeated season alive (which they did until a close loss to Alabama in the national title game).

The 2015 and 2017 games happened against Syracuse teams that were objectively not good (they finished 4-8 each season), so that was a bit annoying. At least last season, the Orange were a legitimately good football team. Last week’s blowout loss to Maryland notwithstanding, Syracuse looks to be an improved program on the rise in the ACC. That’s definitely good for the conference overall, but that obviously poses more of a threat to Clemson in the long-term.

How bummed were you that this wasn’t the College Gameday game this week?

Personally, I’m not particularly bummed, as A) I will not be attending this game in person, B) I’ve become pretty accustomed to Clemson getting College Gameday (how’s that for entitlement?!), and C) less attention for Clemson at this point is probably good, as they are constantly under the microscope. The coverage is fun, but part of me would rather have them be better able to just go about their business (not that they do not already do a great job of that).

I do, however, of course think Gameday’s presence would have been good for Syracuse as it continues to establish itself as a rising ACC contender. It’s mid-September anyway, so we haven’t yet hit bitterly-cold season in upstate New York yet. That said, Ames, Iowa is a fresh spot, as Iowa State has never hosted Gameday before.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Texas A&M at Clemson Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Clemson’s front four has looked just fine despite losing its starters from last year. Assuming Brent Venables just has this thing on auto-pilot at this point?

Yes, Venables is probably the biggest part of it, along with the fact that Clemson has been able to continue replacing departed stars on the defensive line with more four- and five-star talent. Last year’s front four was special, as Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell seemed unlikely to return heading into the offseason after 2017. But sophomore defensive end Xavier Thomas is extremely talented and has played well in the Tigers’ first two games despite some question marks in training camp, and freshman defensive tackle Tyler Davis is already contributing in a big way.

Getting back to your point about Venables, though, he has really proven himself as the best defensive coordinator in the country. It’s not just his ability to get the most out of his players; it’s also his ability to adjust between and during games, and play to the strengths of his personnel. Just last week against Texas A&M, Venables largely employed a 3-3-5 stack instead of lining up with four on the front line as usual. He probably did not feel as confident in the DTs and DEs against A&M’s offensive line, so he adjusted and confused A&M quarterback Kellen Mond, who could never really get things going like he did in College Station last year. We’ll see what Venables has in store for the Orange.

We’re still trying to decipher what the hell happened to Syracuse vs. Maryland. What was the biggest takeaway there for Tigers fans?

I thought Maryland might win, or that Syracuse would win in a close one, but probably like many, I did not see that type of blowout coming. I think Maryland might be a bit better than most people expected coming into the season. They have a solid quarterback in Josh Jackson (a transfer from Virginia Tech), and a lot of speed throughout their roster. That clearly gave Syracuse fits.

I also do not think Syracuse is THAT bad, but perhaps they aren’t quite the threat that many thought them to be coming into the season. Their offensive line looked shaky at best, and their defense clearly struggled mightily, especially the linebackers. To that end, perhaps Venables will go back to his normal four-man front. On the other side of the ball, I’d expect Clemson to look to establish the run early while also incorporating more crossing routes and intermediate passing plays in the middle of the field until the Orange’s linebackers prove they can stop them.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Texas A&M at Clemson Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What sort of difference does Amari Rodgers make for Clemson at full strength? He suited up last week and had two catches. But is he at full strength now?

If there was one position group to which the Tigers could sustain an injury, it was the wide receivers, as Clemson again boasts excellent depth there. Nevertheless, Rodgers’ return can only help. He will continue to be eased into his role as the team’s primary slot receiver, a spot the lanky Diondre Overton has been holding down in his absence. Rodgers is a more natural fit there and has already proven more in his short Clemson career than Overton, a senior who has been slow to develop but, by all accounts, had an outstanding offseason and has earned more of an opportunity so far this year.

Rodgers did not start last week, but as you said, he did get a fair amount of game action. In addition to being a good fit in the slot to complement elite wideouts Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, he offers Clemson quite a bit of versatility, as he is almost built like a running back and can thus sometimes be leveraged in jet sweeps or eye candy/motion plays, similar to former Tiger (and former No. 3) Artavis Scott. Rodgers has also played a role in the kick/punt return game in the past (let’s just forget about that muff against the Orange last year). Converted wide receiver and new cornerback Derion Kendrick has been handling punt return duties effectively in Rodgers’ absence.

Rodgers’ recovery from his ACL tear was freakishly fast at just over five months, so I expect this weekend will be another step in gradually assimilating him back into the offense (and perhaps special teams). I have to think he is fully healthy but will still not yet play his full array of roles for another two or three contests at least, as he needs to get re-acclimated to actual game action.

Is there anywhere on the field Syracuse has an advantage, other than special teams? Related: Is there one Orange player that really concerns you?

Other than Syracuse’s punter and kicker (Sterling Hofrichter and Andre Szmyt), who were both stellar against the Tigers last year, it’s hard to point to a specific position group where the Orange have a decisive advantage. That said, while I’m glad Clemson does not have to deal with Eric Dungey anymore, former four-star prospect Joe Pesci Tommy DeVito certainly appears to be more than capable at quarterback. Besides him, the one player on Syracuse that concerns me ahead of this game is safety Andre Cisco, who tied for the national lead in interceptions last season with seven. Trevor Lawrence will have to be careful with his downfield shots against a ballhawk as good as Cisco.

The other overall advantage the Orange have, of course, is playing at home in the Carrier Dome. It will be a raucous environment given that it’s Syracuse’s home opener and against the nation’s top-ranked team and defending national champion, not to mention the recent history between these two clubs. Clemson will have to weather the early storm.

Texas A&M v Clemson Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Travis Etienne didn’t get many carries last week vs. Texas A&M (and he only averaged 3.3 yards per rush). He also had four catches on the game. Is Clemson managing his workload early? Or just a reflection of the Tigers coasting past A&M?

Clemson has typically kept Etienne’s workload pretty light in order to keep him fresh throughout the season. This has been a source of displeasure among parts of the fan base who want to see Clemson demolish teams even more by always using its best players, as well as to see Etienne’s Heisman candidacy be bolstered.

At the end of the day though, Clemson has won 17 straight games and a national championship while keeping Etienne’s workload in check, so it’s hard to argue with the coaching staff. The Tigers have been lucky to have other talent at running back over the years, and they’ve also had many games with big leads that made it less important to use Etienne a ton. His 27-carry game against Syracuse last year was actually an exception, as they needed him to have a chance to win that game with Brice struggling early after he entered the contest. Only against South Carolina did Etienne have more carries (28) last season, and that was the only other time he went over 20, as he averaged just 13.6 per game.

So, against A&M, Etienne’s 16 carries actually represent a slightly higher number than he typically got in games last year. I imagine he will get a few more carries this season, only because Clemson’s running back depth is not quite as strong, although sophomore Lyn-J Dixon — who put up better rushing numbers than Etienne against the Aggies—looks excellent so far in the backup role.

In any event, last Saturday, A&M stacked the box early and often against the Tigers, forcing them to move the ball through the air, which Lawrence was more than happy to do. Etienne has also become more of a factor catching balls out of the backfield this year. The Tigers employed him in this fashion against the Aggies to get him out into space where he could play to his strengths. As you said, he finished with four receptions that went for 52 yards, most of which were after the catch.

Obviously Trevor Lawrence is very good. Where does he excel most and where do you think he still has room to improve a bit?

The Lawrence hype train reached insane levels in the offseason, and why wouldn’t it? He was hyped heavily coming into his true freshman season, and he managed to live up to it by quarterbacking Clemson to a national championship and undefeated season, all while tossing 30 touchdown passes against only four interceptions.

His opener against Georgia Tech was a bit lackluster by his standards, and he threw two uncharacteristic interceptions in that game. He looked much more like his old self against A&M; even his one interception in that game was a calculated risk and inconsequential.

Lawrence’s biggest strength is of course his arm talent. Right now, this is actually most evident in his short and intermediate passes, as he consistently throws absolute missiles right on the money. The velocity on his throws actually help in wide receiver screen plays, as there is less time for defenders to close on receivers who make a catch near the line of scrimmage. In addition, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a quarterback who is better at throwing the ball hard and with accuracy while moving to his weak side (i.e., Lawrence is incredibly adept at running to his left and not losing anything on his throws while in motion).

Lawrence has also added some strength and speed since last season, and is much more of a threat in the running game as a result. He’s quite fleet of foot for someone who’s 6-foot-6, which adds yet another component for opposing defenses to worry about.

If there’s anything I think Lawrence can improve on, one cheap answer is more experience Continued experience will help him learn more and more about reading different defenses, but again, this aspect of his game is already excellent, and he is an extremely quick learner.

Beyond that, I would say one more area for improvement is the touch and accuracy on his deep throws. We already saw him take strides in that aspect of his game even throughout last season, as he seemed to learn that sometimes it’s best to take a little bit off those throws in terms of velocity and add more touch. He still sometimes overshoots his deep passes, but I’m confident that that part of his game will continue to improve, and it’s already very good compared to average college quarterbacks.

Texas A&M v Clemson Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Prediction time: Who wins this one and how?

I expect the Orange to start out with a much better and more inspired performance than they had in Maryland last week, given that it’s their home opener against the No. 1 team (and one against whom they must have some confidence based on the past couple of years) and that they are coming off an embarrassing loss.

Nevertheless, after the past two meetings, I think Clemson will be extremely motivated to “leave no doubt,’’ as they like to say, and will eventually pull away in this game (as long as their starting quarterback can finally avoid getting knocked out of a game against Syracuse). I think Etienne will have a big night, and that Lawrence and the receivers will complement him by attacking the Orange over the middle of the field. DeVito and Syracuse will be able to put together a few solid possessions, but it won’t be enough to keep up with the Tigers, or even the seemingly high 27.5-point spread.

Prediction: Clemson 49, Syracuse 20

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Thanks again to Tom for taking the time here. Be sure to check out Shakin the Southland for everything Clemson, and follow the site on Twitter, too.