Through two games this season, the Syracuse Orange defense under Tony White is allowing an average of 13 points per game, 270 yards per game, and 4.1 yards per play. Those numbers are all significantly better than last year’s performance (32.73/463/5.8) and have the Orange’s defense in the top 30 nationally.
There are going to be plenty of those who point to the lackluster opposition, along with last season’s back of season collapse and say that there’s no point in talking about “defensive improvements” this early. While there’s some validity to that train of thought, there are significant underlying numbers that suggest that Tony White’s unit have a much higher ceiling that last year’s team, and better than most defenses we’ve seen in the post 2000 ‘Cuse era.
Let’s start with a somewhat subjective, but helpful stabilizing metric: Pro Football Focus. The service provides a numerical grade (0-100) for all players and teams in each game as graded by one of their experts according to their universal standards, so people have a general idea how say an ACC team compares to a SEC team.
Syracuse’s defense has an 84 grade, 18th best in the country. Their rush defense is 87.6 (17th), tackling is 81.7 (10th), pass coverage 80.8 (28th), and pass rush grading the worst at 69.3 (67th). These are excellent numbers, that put them in the upper echelon of the ACC. Why are these numbers so good? PFF’s, system is comprised of individual grades that make up team grades, and they find Syracuse’s defense deep and consistent. While players performed better in the Ohio game, almost everyone received better than average (65) grades in both games, which speaks to the higher floor established by the unit.
If you want a model that hedges based on past performance and recruit rankings, SP+ is for you, and even they are trending aggressively up for the Orange. Syracuse came into the season ranked 77th on defense, and after the Rutgers loss are now ranked 60th in the country. This is a model that factors in last season’s data for several weeks, so the Orange’s defense has improved that much over last year’s to move up 17 spots in 2 weeks.
Regardless of what you want to buy into this early, the truth is that the Orange’s defense is the bright spot for the team, and looks ready to put the team in positions to win games. That has not always been the case for the Orange, and in fact Syracuse hasn’t held opponents to under 25 points per game since 2014. If this year’s defense can reach that mark, there’s a good chance ‘Cuse’s season may be salvaged.