The Syracuse Orange football team is 3-3 through six games. That’s either good or bad news depending on what your expectations were going in. But regardless of what you expected back in August, Syracuse has six games to try and make a bowl game for the first time since 2018.
In advance of game No. 7 against the Clemson Tigers, the TNIAAM staff assesses what’s transpired so far for Syracuse, and what needs to happen to turn bowl dreams into a reality.
What’s the most surprising development for Syracuse halfway through the year?
Steve: I would have to say the switch to Shrader. I can’t believe that we’re here and that it’s somewhat working, but it’s been a surprise to me. I was team Tommy and still feel he could play much better than he showed in an offense tailored to him like Shrader got.
Andy: The relative success with the amount of player movement in and out of the lineup has to be considered surprising. The Orange have lost starters to both injuries and transfers and yet remained competitive in all of their games so far this season.
Christian: The run defense is a big reason why Syracuse suffered in 2020 and I didn’t have a lot of faith before 2021 that the Orange could improve enough in that area to keep up with opponents. However, the run defense has been good enough to keep the Orange close in games. Save for not containing Jordan Travis, Syracuse has done well at limiting the effectiveness of each team on the ground, which has helped the defense become an all-around monster.
Kevin: The poor play of the special teams units. I think we expected a step back with the departures of Justin Lustig and Nolan Cooney but not this far back. Andre Szymt doesn’t seem to be as reliable as his freshman year and we’ve seen three punters come up with poorly-timed shanks. Add to that a lack of impact in the return game and this unit has certainly underwhelmed so far.
John: Have to agree with Kevin here. Special teams haven’t just taken a step back — they’ve been an absolute disaster in just about every facet, save perhaps returns. One of this program’s big advantages since Dino Babers arrived was an emphasis on sound special teams play, and losing that to such an extreme this year can easily be pointed to as how they’ve lost games they should’ve won. Next year, they need to prioritize a full-time staffer on special teams again.
What’s been the most predictable outcome for the team at the midway point?
Steve: The questions on the interior secondary. We knew going into the season that the corners would be good and that the interior would be shakier with the NFL folks leaving. With three brand new starters based on that and injury, it only makes sense that there have been a few times they’ve been put on an island.
Andy: The offensive struggles mostly due to quarterback play. Well we knew Tommy DeVito had his limitations Garrett Shrader has come in and had some success with running the ball but his limited abilities passing the ball down field have opened up a whole new set of issues that the Syracuse office has to work through if they are going to finish out and win some of these close games.
Christian: The play-calling being… questionable at best. Most of us had seen enough evidence from 2020 to look elsewhere instead of giving Sterlin Gilbert another run with this offense. And it’s no surprise that some of the decisions have not been great. Now with Garrett Shrader in it seems like Gilbert is making better decisions with calling plays, but the decision making leaves a lot to be desired.
Kevin: None of the wide receivers have emerged as the type of playmaker on the outside that this offense needs. There have been some flashes but overall consistency has been a challenge.
John: The emphasis on the run game. I don’t think we saw a QB-RB two-headed monster running the football like we have with Sean Tucker and Garrett Shrader. However, this was always going to be a season that relied heavily on the run game then passed out of necessity.
Offensive MVP so far?
Steve: Sean Tucker. That is all. It goes without saying that he’s been the workhorse that we needed and I’m surprised he hasn’t had 44 plastered on his back yet.
Andy: It has to be Sean Tucker correct? Tucker has been a workhorse week in and week out even with opposing teams knowing that he will be touching the ball at least 20 times.
Christian: It’s hard to justify anyone else but Sean Tucker. No one else on offense is producing at nearly the same level at Tucker. Just, for a second, think what this offense would look like if Tucker wasn’t the starting running back. Syracuse could be in a world of trouble if that wasn’t the case.
Kevin: Sean Tucker. It seems like the recent game MVP awards have gone to Garrett Shrader when it’s been Tucker holding this team in games with his ability to draw the attention of the defense and still make plays. This really should be unanimous but some in this fanbase are stuck living in an alternate reality.
John: Tucker’s the obvious pick, but I’d also note put a second-place vote in for Chris Elmore. His return at fullback has been a big part of the run game’s turnaround in 2021, and you can see his impact at that position so clearly now that it’s easy to see how that could’ve facilitated another win or two last year, too.
Steve: Gonna say Cody Roscoe on this one. While I can honestly say I never thought I would say that when he transferred from McNeese, hes made a damn huge jump and had deserved every accolade he’s gotten. While we have a bunch of solid D-Linemen, he’s the X-Factor right now.
Andy: Mikel Jones has done a fantastic job manning the middle of the defense and stepping up his play to be more than just a hard hitting inside linebacker. While he’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, he has served his role very well and held together a line back in core that could have been a huge liability for the orange defense.
Christian: Cody Roscoe has provided an important element to the 3-3-5 defense that wasn’t as apparent last year. The defensive line didn’t provide enough pressure against opposing quarterbacks to be considered a decent threat last season. Now with Roscoe consistently getting into the backfield for sacks, it’s helped the linebackers flourish and develop even further, which is what the 3-3-5 is designed to do.
Kevin: Mikel Jones and Cody Roscoe share this honor for me. We expected Jones to be the leader but Roscoe has elevated his game in his second season in Syracuse and he has added an element to the pass rush.
John: We already knew what Jones was last year, and he’s still made strides this year. But my pick is Roscoe. In my opinion, the line was the weak link for last year’s defense and the push that Roscoe’s provided this year has helped change that narrative completely.
What’s the biggest change we need to see from the Orange in the second half of the season?
Steve: Keep adding elements to the offense. This team started very vanilla and has added wrinkles most weeks. To keep improving and to give the team a fighting chance moving forward, they need to keep developing what they’ve done these past few weeks on offense, adding things that play to the starters strengths.
Andy: The Orange need to figure out how to add some dynamism to their offensive attack. At this point in time they are far too predictable and do not have any options for explosive plays beyond Tucker or Shrader doing something incredible when the defense makes mistakes when tackling.
Christian: Develop a down-field passing game. I’m still in the “put DeVito back in” camp. The main reason is because Syracuse’s offense is still way too easy to prepare for and stop. You can’t just run and hope that Tucker and Sharder do something with their legs. I’m not convinced that Sharder can consistently hit downfield targets, and for that reason it’s got to be DeVito who helps out the Orange.
Kevin: Halftime offensive adjustments. Syracuse has come out with a strong game plan the last three weeks but in the second half they have struggled especially in the passing game. To turn these close losses to wins, the Orange need to find ways to adjust in the second half.
John: Just better in-game coaching, which probably covers a lot of the responses above. This staff’s questionable decisions have played major roles in at least two losses, if not all three. We’ve seen this group make some strides building a gameplan that’s more grounded in Garrett Shrader’s abilities, so it’s clear they can adapt and adjust. But where they’ve been stuck for years now is with regard to seemingly “easy” things like time management and key decisions to stay aggressive in major moments. It would be great to see improvements here.
Predict Syracuse’s win-loss record come the end of the season. Will they make a bowl?
Steve: Gonna go 5-7 and stick with my preseason prediction. Whoever those come against is a mystery, but the team has been talented enough to grab two lore somewhere in this mess of an ACC this season.
Andy: I think the Orange finish the year 4-8. We haven’t seen enough from either the coaching staff in key moments or players outside of Tucker finding ways to take that extra step and win these close games against ACC competition.
Christian: 5-7. Who those two wins come against is a great question. The ACC is so bad this year that Syracuse could theoretically win every game left on its schedule with a solid game plan. However, I don’t trust the coaching staff offensively to be creative enough to confuse and deceive opponents to make a bowl.
Kevin: I think Syracuse will end up 5-7 by beating Pitt and BC at home but they will fall short of bowl eligibility.
John: My answer changes immediately if they pull off the upset vs. Clemson, as I’d assume the case is with everyone else here too. But with how the schedule’s laid out, it’s tough to see more than two more wins. I’ll guess they’re BC and Louisville, but I do so with very little confidence.
How about you all? Feel free to weigh in below.