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

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This is inopportune timing...

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Ohio State vs Clemson Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Following a brutal loss to Liberty, the Syracuse Orange football team could’ve really used a bounce-back game. Instead, however, they’ll get the Clemson Tigers, who beat Georgia Tech by a score of 73-7 last week. Needless to say, no one is very optimistic about Syracuse’s chances.

Since we’re not Clemson fans, we went ahead and asked on about what to expect in this game (beyond just “pain”). Shakin the Southland’s Tom Dianora — who you can follow on Twitter — joins us to talk about the Tigers. You can check out those responses below. We also provided some notes on Syracuse over there, which we’ll link to once they’re live.

Clemson hasn’t really had a motivation problem under Dabo Swinney. But how does losing January’s national title game seem to have fueled the Tigers so far in 2020?

I think the best thing it did was further fuel Trevor Lawrence. His subpar performance against LSU was a big reason why Clemson lost, and he would probably be the first to tell you that.

This season, he looks better than ever. His completion percentage is an incredible 73%, and he has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only one interception. Qualitatively, his pocket presence and ability to go through his progressions and make the right reads have improved. He is still prone to the occasional read that’s too quick, and/or a hasty/bad decision (like the one that led to his lone interception last week), but I am just nitpicking at this point.

As for the rest of the team, the defensive line is reloaded with several youngsters, and junior Jackson Carman is now the leader on the offensive line, so I think there is a lot of eagerness for the newer guys to prove themselves and maintain the standard of excellence at Clemson.

NCAA Football: Miami at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s your Heisman favorite so far: Trevor Lawrence or Travis Etienne?

At this point, it’s Lawrence by a good margin. Etienne is electric and probably the most fun Clemson player to watch because of his explosiveness, but Lawrence starts out with an advantage because of the greater name recognition nationally, and the fact that he plays the QB position.

Beyond that, though, Lawrence’s performance so far this season has outshined Etienne’s. I don’t mean to insinuate that Etienne has been a letdown, but Lawrence has been consistently excellent while sometimes Etienne has had a bit more trouble getting going on the ground (last week against Georgia Tech, he rushed for only 44 yards on 11 carries). A lot of that is on the offensive line struggling with run blocking more so than pass protection, and Etienne has also emerged as a major receiving threat out of the backfield. But at this point, to me, the Heisman Trophy is Lawrence’s to lose.

Clemson didn’t have much trouble with Miami a couple weeks ago. Do you think any team in the ACC is really on the same level as the Tigers this year?

I did not truly believe any ACC team was on Clemson’s level at the beginning of the season, and the results of the past couple of weeks have only reinforced that notion. Notre Dame struggled in a win over Louisville, scoring over 12 points. I figured that that Nov. 7 matchup could be a challenging game, although I was still confident Clemson would win it. Now I’m even more confident.

UNC lost to a bad Florida State team, so I think that while they’re a solid team that’s improved very quickly (and one that gave Clemson trouble last year), they’re still not in the “elite” tier. And we already saw the gap between Clemson and Miami, as that 42-17 final was not truly indicative of how much Clemson really dominated the game.

All that being said, Clemson always seems to have one or two games a year where they struggle against an inferior team (as pretty much any team in college football does), even though they might still end up with a win. You would know this well based on the 2017 and 2018 games against Syracuse (although the 2018 Syracuse squad was a formidable foe). But I am hoping that Clemson already had that game against Virginia, a team they beat 41-23 at home on Oct. 3 but looked vulnerable against at times before coming out much sharper against a better Miami team the following week. We’ll see though; there could be another sneaky tough game, such as the regular-season finale in Blacksburg against a solid Virginia Tech squad.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Cotton Bowl-Notre Dame vs Clemson Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe related: What are your thoughts on Notre Dame’s temporary addition? Fine for one year, or should the league demand they join full-time?

I’d be happy to see Notre Dame join the ACC full-time. The whole independent thing only adds to playoff controversy in my opinion, plus this would be a solid opponent for Clemson each year (or however often they would play, depending on divisional setup) and an overall boost to the quality of football in the conference.

I don’t know how aggressive the league will get in demanding Notre Dame’s full-time membership in football, but I’d like to see the move happen.

With an opening line of 45 points in this game, how high would it need to go before you even considered betting on Syracuse to cover?

No matter how much better one team might be versus another, spreads this big are always tricky, because there is the “take the foot off the gas and coast with backups” issue, which could happen early on.

Having said that, I think Clemson will cover (sneak preview for the final question). If this spread got to 50+, I would seriously consider taking the points and betting on Syracuse (if I were a betting man).

Clemson doesn’t really have weaknesses that the Orange can exploit this year, but is there one area where you think the Tigers fall short of expectations?

I am curious to see if Clemson can establish a strong rushing attack more consistently. That might sound absurd given Etienne’s stardom, but as I alluded to before, the Tigers’ offensive line has not been consistently strong in run blocking, so I’m setting higher hopes there. A poor Syracuse run defense that yields 253 yards on the ground per game might make Clemson look better in this area.

Other than that, turnovers are always a thing to keep an eye on. The Tigers, at least before garbage time in their games, have done a pretty solid job of protecting the football, with Lawrence only throwing the aforementioned one interception. But Syracuse, for all of its struggles, is excellent at getting takeaways, having secured a national-best 16 on the year. So I hope the Tigers keep their focus in this area, as a couple of turnovers last week were among the few annoyances in their blowout victory.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

We know Clemson’s starters are going to have an impressive afternoon. But which reserves seem likely to have great games too?

Related to my last answer, I could see the Tigers really trying to establish more of a ground game to try to develop some consistency in that area, especially if/when they build a sizable lead. So, after Etienne, I could see Lyn-J Dixon and Chez Mellusi doing some damage running the ball. The Tigers have also been slowly working highly-regarded sophomore receiver Joseph Ngata back into action, as he’s been dealing with an abdominal muscle issue. Hopefully he can get more snaps and targets this week.

Defensively, junior defensive end Xavier Thomas is in a similar position of needing to be slowly worked back into the rotation (you might remember that big hit he had on Eric Dungey in the latter stages of the 2018 game in Clemson). He would likely have been a starter, but he dealt with COVID-19 and strep throat in the summer, which really put him behind in terms of workouts and conditioning. He saw his first action last week, albeit limited. So the hope is that this week is another step forward for him.

Any Syracuse players that you’re particularly interested in watching this Saturday?

Besides Culpepper at QB, I’ll be keeping an eye on freshman and lead running back Sean Tucker, as I see he has a couple of 100-yard games to his credit this season after being forced into the lead role of a depleted running back corps. I’ll also look to see if Culpepper and the offensive staff call a couple of deep shots for leading receiver Taj Harris, at least early on.

Defensively, safety Andre Cisco is always the guy for whom I’d be looking out, given how dangerous of a playmaker he is on that side of the ball. But unfortunately for him and the Orange, he is out for the year (and apparently for his Syracuse career). So I’ll be looking at how the Orange cover for him defensively, as they still are managing to rack up the turnovers. Based on a combination of stats and my own recollections from the past couple of matchups between these teams, it seems that defensive back Trill Williams and linebacker Mikel Jones would be a couple of names to watch.

I’d also be remiss to not mention Syracuse’s punter, Nolan Cooney, as punters always seem to do extremely well against Clemson. I imagine he’ll be busy.

Prediction time: Who wins this one and how? (plus final score)

Clemson wins (are you shocked??), 59-7. Etienne gets going early, but Lawrence also spreads the ball all over the field, getting tight ends Braden Galloway and Davis Allen involved as well. The defensive line gets pressure all day on Rex Culpepper, limiting the Orange’s attack.

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Thanks again to Tom for taking the time out to answer these. Follow Shakin the Southland and check out the site too, for all things Clemson.