With ACC Kickoff behind us, we’re continuing to preview all 12 teams the Syracuse Orange will face this season. We’re shifting from an out of conference matchup against Purdue to an ACC showdown. Since SU only plays on Friday night once this season, it’s fitting that we break down that game on a Friday. Two of the new ‘Cuse coaches are very familiar with this next opponent...
School: University of Virginia
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History vs. Syracuse: Despite being in the same conference, the Cavs haven’t played the Orange since 2015. Eric Dungey threw for two touchdowns and rushed for a third in that game, but it wasn’t enough as UVA won 44-38 in Triple OT. Overall, Virginia holds a 3-2 series lead, having won the last three matchups. They haven’t played in Syracuse since 2005.
Coach: Tony Elliott, first season. Bronco Mendenhall departed the program after leading it for six years, opening the door for Elliott. He’s spent the last 10 seasons coaching in some capacity with Clemson, but this is his first head coaching gig anywhere. He walked on for the Tigers in college and was eventually named a team captain in 2003. Before returning to Clemson, Elliot was a WR coach for FCS schools South Carolina State and Furman.
2021 Record: (6-6) (4-4)
Recapping Last Season:
The Cavs won the first two games of the year at home, then lost back-to-back contests at North Carolina and against Wake Forest. From there, they went on a long winning streak. After beating both Miami and Louisville by a combined three points, Virginia returned home for two more wins. That’s where the good times ended. First, a gauntlet of tough teams (BYU, Notre Dame, and Pitt) all got the better of this bunch before VT put the nail in the coffin by issuing UVA a fourth straight loss. Then, even though their 6-6 record got them a spot in the Fenway Bowl, the Cavs later withdrew due to COVID cases on their roster. It was the second straight year that they qualified for a bowl game but did not end up playing in it.
The pass-heavy offense was led by electric lefty quarterback Brennan Armstrong, whose transformation into one of the most successful arms in college was attributed to new Syracuse OC Robert Anae and QB Coach Josh Beck. His 4,449 passing yards were the 4th-most in the FBS - and that’s with only playing 11 games. He also had 31 touchdowns in the air, along with nine more on the ground, to 10 interceptions. Dontayvion Wicks hauled in 57 catches for 1,203 yards and 9 TDs as the top wideout, and TE Jelani Woods had 8 TDs as a prime redzone target. The team averaged the 2nd-most passing yards and 3rd-most total yards per game. I think that’s enough stats to demonstrate just how good this group was.
While the offense was guns blazing, the defense left a lot to be desired. Allowing the 10th-most yards per game is a big reason why Armstrong needed to throw the ball so much. Joey Blount gave some relief up top with three interceptions, Noah Taylor had 3.5 sacks and a fumble recovery, and Nick Grant batted away nine passes. Still, the bulk of the D had little to write home about. The run defense was almost nonexistent, giving up over 225 yards per game. Justin Duenkel was 4/6 on FGs early until Brendan Farrell, who’s officially listed as a punter, kicked the rest of the season and went 11/13.
2022 Season Outlook:
UVA starts off against three out of conference opponents: vs. Richmond, at Illinois, and vs. Old Dominion. They also host Coastal Carolina on Senior Day. The remaining home slate has matchups against Louisville, Miami, North Carolina, and Pitt. On the road, they have Syracuse, Duke, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech. It’s worth noting that the Cavs have a stretch of four straight home games from Week 9-12.
Armstrong is back under center, which is a bit of a surprise considering last year’s weak QB class and UVA having to replace the entire coaching staff. Wicks, Keytaon Thompson, and Billy Kemp remain the starting wide receiver trio and should stay viable targets, though depth could be a concern. Last season’s primary back, Wayne Taulapapa, transferred to Washington, so Mike Hollins and Miami transfer Cody Brown will try to turn around a group that’s been on the decline. Woods is also gone, as the Indianapolis Colts called his name in the Draft.
The defense could end up going from bad to worse, as Blount and Grant went pro, and Taylor is now on UNC. Leading tackler Nick Jackson will try to bring the younger replacements up to speed, especially a defensive line that could not get near opposing QBs last fall. They do still have one solid corner, Anthony Johnson.
Syracuse Game Date: Friday, September 23
Location: JMA Wireless Dome, Syracuse, New York
Odds of Orange Victory: 65%
Very Early Outlook vs. Syracuse:
If this were last season, you could argue that the victory percentage should be flipped. But there are several areas where Syracuse now has the advantage. The Cavs had an abysmal run defense last year that may get even worse because of departures, so Sean Tucker should run wild in this one. A completely new offensive game plan isn’t likely to have quite the same punch as last year’s, and the lack of an established running game could let the Orange leave 8 men back more often. I’m sure Anae and Beck know their old players well enough to exploit their flaws. To top it all off, SU has played above average on Friday nights over the last few years.