WHAT WE ARE HEARING: PREVIEW & PREDICTION FOR NO.5 CLEMSON vs. NO.14 SYRACUSE
- 2022-10-22 01:20:19
Welcome to the Homecoming edition of What We Are Hearing!
It seems like I’ve been saying it for the last 5 weeks, but it’s yet another ACC Atlantic showdown for the Tigers. They’ve already knocked off 3 of the biggest division threats in Wake, NC State and FSU, but now they have an unexpected clash for division supremacy with undefeated 6-0 Syracuse, ranked No.14 in the country. Absolutely no one thought in the preseason that the Orange would be coming to Death Valley undefeated, but here they are, perhaps the biggest surprise of the college football season. They are 6-0 for the first time in 35 years and have come out of nowhere, just like they did in 2018 when they went 10-3. Give credit to the Syracuse administration for sticking with Dino Babers in an era when there is very little patience and head coaches are fired after 2 bad seasons and as early as 3 or 4 games into the schedule. After going 5-7, 1-10 and 5-7 over the past 3 seasons, most schools would have fired Dino Babers, but Cuse’s patience has paid off with their best start since 1987. It’s the Tigers’ fifth straight game on ABC and, amazingly, it’s the first time that two 6-0 teams or better will meet in the history of Death Valley. The next closest would be in 2013 when 6-0 Clemson hosted 5-0 FSU, which went on to win the national championship. The Tigers hosted UGA in 1981, but that was early in the season. They also met an undefeated UNC team later that season, but the game was in Chapel Hill.
Speaking of that 10-3 Syracuse team in 2018, who could forget when Chase Brice had to step in for the injured Trevor Lawrence and completed a 4th and 6 pass to Tee Higgins, leading to the game-winning touchdown? Kelly Bryant had already announced his intent to transfer, so Brice was the third-string quarterback at the start of the season. Brice and Etienne overcame a 23-13 fourth quarter deficit to score the go-ahead touchdown with 41 seconds left, and freshman Xavier Thomas came up with a big sack on Cuse’s last possession to hold onto the 27-23 win.
The national media loves to talk about how Syracuse beat No.2 Clemson in 2017 and has given the Tigers a couple more scares, but they always neglect to point out that the Tigers were without their starting QB in both 2017 and 2018, and in the loss, they had also lost starting kicker Greg Huegel days before. Backup kicker Alex Spence missed two easy field goals in the 3-point loss in the Carrier Dome on Friday the 13th! The only other close game under Dino Babers was last season, when the Tigers were injured and struggling offensively, playing close games against everyone. And Will Shipley was out for that game! Incidentally, that 2017 game was the last time a top 5 Clemson team lost to an unranked team. This time, it’s different. The Tigers’ offense is humming, and even if lightning strikes a third time to knock the Tigers’ starting QB out of the game, they have a talented backup QB waiting in the wings and an All-American kicker. By the way, Syracuse continued its luck with injured starting quarterbacks last week when they beat NC State without Preseason ACC Player of the Year Devin Leary! I don’t know if Dino is practicing voodoo or what, but it’s amazing how they always seem to play top-ranked teams with an injured starting quarterback.
It's a noon kickoff, but it should be a great Homecoming crowd in Death Valley, and the weather is going to be perfect! This game features perhaps the two most improved quarterbacks in the nation in DJ Uiagalelei and Garrett Shrader. It also features two of the best kickers in college football history! On to the matchup…
Clemson leads the all-time series with Syracuse 8-2 and has won 4 straight…The Tigers are looking for a 5th win against a team with no losses this season. They would join the national champion teams of 2016 and 2018 as the only teams in program history to beat at least 5 teams with no losses or ties. The 2016 won 5 such games, and the 2018 team won 7…The Tigers’ first Homecoming game was in 1922. The Tigers are 74-20-3 all-time on Homecoming and 44-4-2 since 1971. The Tigers’ first Homecoming win was 3-0 over Auburn in 1927. Dabo is 12-1 on Homecoming as a head coach. His only loss was to No.16 Miami the week after a heartbreaking double-overtime loss at eventual national champion Auburn, who broke QB Kyle Parker’s ribs…Clemson is riding the nation’s longest win streak at 13 games. A win Saturday would give the Tigers their fourth-longest win streak in program history…The Tigers also have the nation’s longest home win streak at 37, tied with FSU for the longest in ACC history. A win Saturday would tie the Tigers with Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame teams for the 10th longest home win streak in history. If not for the last-second 42-yard field goal by Pitt in 2016, the Tigers would be looking to tie Miami’s 58-game streak for the all-time record. No current Clemson player has ever lost a game at home…After beating FSU for a 7th straight time in Tallahassee last week, Clemson is 34-4 in true road games since 2015, and the Tigers have won 46 of their last 48 games against ACC Atlantic teams, losing only in double-overtime at NC State last season and at Syracuse in 2017 without their starting QB and kicker… Clemson is 45-7 in night games since 2015, including 9 straight wins…The Tigers have won 66 straight games when leading at halftime…Clemson has won 38 consecutive games as an AP top-5 team against unranked opponents, the longest active streak in the nation…Clemson is 99-3 against unranked teams since the start of the 2012 season…Last week, Dabo won his 200th game since joining the Clemson staff in 2003. Dabo also won his 157th game as a head coach last week. He took the sixth-fewest games (186) to reach 150 wins. Urban Meyer holds the record at 176 games, followed by Barry Switzer, Gil Dobie, Fielding Yost and Joe Paterno. Switzer and Paterno are the only ones who, like Dabo, won all 150 games at one school….Clemson has the second-most wins and second-best win percentage since 2015 behind Alabama. The Tigers are 96-10 over that period while Alabama is 98-9. Ohio State is 3rd with a record of 86-10 since 2015. Clemson is also 2nd in wins since 2011 with a record of 138-21. Alabama is 146-15 and Ohio State is 130-20….Clemson has the most Power Five wins (98) since 2013. Alabama is 2nd with 95 and Ohio State is 3rd with 90….Clemson holds the all-time record for most wins over a 5-year span with 69 from 2015-2019….Dabo Swinney has the best active win percentage in the nation (minimum 10 years) at .813. Nick Saban is second at .801, Jimbo Fisher and Kansas Head Coach Lance Leipold are tied for 3rd (.750)….Dabo is currently tied for 11th on the all-time win percentage list but climbing quickly. He’s just one spot below legendary Oklahoma Head Coach Bud Wilkinson, who Dabo could pass for 10th next season….Dabo’s 157 wins are already the third-most of any coach in his first 15 seasons, but Dabo is only in his 14th full season. By the end of the 2023 season, Dabo should topple Urban Meyer’s record of 165 wins in his first 15 seasons….Dabo has the most active wins (157) with one school. Mike Gundy is 2nd with 154 at Oklahoma State. Dabo is 9th on the active win list, 2 more than Mike Leach….With a win in the Cheez-It Bowl over Iowa State last season, Dabo tied Bobby Bowden for most bowl wins (11) by any ACC coach in history….
One of the reasons for Syracuse’s surprising season is the addition of new Offensive Coordinator Robert Anae, who had great success as the OC at Virginia over the last 5 years—especially last season with QB Brennan Armstrong. He played center on BYU’s national championship team in 1884 and has had a great track record with quarterbacks, coaching the likes of Taysom Hill at BYU as well as Bryce Perkins and Brennan Armstrong at UVA. So it’s no surprise that he’s dramatically improved Syracuse QB Garrett Shrader’s play this season.
Shrader was a dangerous running quarterback last season, but his completion percentage was just 52.6% with 9 touchdown passes and 4 interceptions. His completion percentage is now a whopping 69.7% with 12 TD’s and 3 INT’s. Shrader had the No.68 quarterback rating in the nation last year, but he’s currently ranked No.11 this season! He’s now a serious dual-threat quarterback with 300 rush yards and 5 TD’s on the season, one more than DJ. At 6’4 and 228 pounds with great speed, the junior Charlotte native and Mississippi State transfer is a nightmare to tackle in the open field.
Shrader’s favorite target in the passing game is 6’5, 216-pound WR Oronde Gadsden (#19). The sophomore has 31 catches for 507 yards and 5 touchdowns. He’s coming off his best game of the season with 8 catches for 141 yards and 2 TD’s against NC State last week. Cuse has 7 players with one TD catch each, so Shrader is spreading the ball around. 5’11, 185-pound senior Devaughn Cooper (#7) is second on the team with 16 catches for 207 yards and one score. Syracuse lost a potential playmaker in 6’4, 204-pound sophomore WR Isaiah Jones, who suffered a season-ending injury early in the season after making a couple big catches and scoring a touchdown against Purdue.
Shrader may be the story of the season for Syracuse so far this season, but the offense still runs through their work horse running back, Sean Tucker (#34). The 5’10, 205-pound sophomore from Maryland burst onto the scene last season as a freshman and one of the best backs in the entire nation. His production is down a bit from last season—probably because they don’t have to rely on him as much with the improved passing attack—but he’s still one of the most dangerous backs in the country and specializes in broken tackles. In their 4 ACC games this season, he’s averaging 75 rush yards per game versus 117 per game in their first 4 last season, but he’s still averaging an impressive 5.2 yards per carry with 6 TD’s. He also has 23 catches for 198 yards and a score. He averaged 7 yards per carry for 98 yards and a touchdown last week against a stout NC State defense. No one is really “like” the great Barry Sanders, but Tucker’s physique and running style is very similar. He has great lower body strength, a low center of gravity and can run around tackles or break them. Tucker averaged 7.1 yards per carry for 157 yards against the Tigers' great defense last season, although he did not score.
Syracuse doesn’t utilize the tight end much in the passing game. 6’7, 262-pound sophomore Maximillian Mang (#81) has a great name but just 3 catches for 18 yards and no scores. Syracuse likes to run a lot of outside zone in the run game. They stretch out the defensive line, opening running lanes for Tucker to run through or bounce it outside. The best kryptonite for that type of run game is a fast, powerful defensive line that can get off blocks and blow the play up in the backfield, and that is just what the Tigers have.
On paper, Syracuse has one of the best defenses in the nation. They are ranked No.6 in scoring defense, allowing just 13.2 points per game. They are allowing just 95 rush yards per game, which ranks No.11 nationally. Again, that’s on paper, and it includes a hobbled NC State offense with no Devin Leary and a backup QB with absolutely no ability to throw the ball. 3 of their other wins were a 22-20 home win over struggling UVA, Wagner and UConn, one of the worst programs in the country. They shocked everyone with their 31-7 season-opening win over Louisville, and that was easily their most impressive defensive effort against dynamic QB Malik Cunningham. A 32-29 home win over Purdue was probably their next most impressive win. However, their only road game this season was at UConn, so it begs the question whether this Syracuse team can perform at a high level on the road—especially in an environment like Death Valley. By contrast, the Tigers have already played all 4 of their conference road games on the schedule. Cuse is led defensively by junior LB Mikel jones (#3), who has 40 tackles and 3 sacks this season with a forced fumble and recovery. 6’4, 268-pound junior DE Caleb Okechukwu (#93) leads the team in sacks with 3.5. Their other defensive end, 6’5, 219-pound sophomore Steve Linton (#17) is a native of Dublin, GA and has 3 sacks with a forced fumble and recovery. Sophomore LB Marlowe Wax (#2) is the second-leading tackler with 38. He has 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and recovery as well. Cuse has 4 different players with an interception this season but just 5 total, which is No.64 nationally. Their pass defense has been equally impressive as their run defense, though, allowing just 173.8 yards per game, which is ranked No.12 nationally. And that’s in spite of some missing pieces in the secondary and up front. DB’s Neil Nunn and Dom Foster have been out, and neither is expected to play Saturday. That’s in addition to having lost a pair of defensive linemen for the season in Denis Jaquez, Jr. and Terry Lockett. The Orange have just 6 defensive linemen left that have played in a game this season.
As for special teams, this might be the best matchup of kickers you’ll see in college football this season. Syracuse’s fifth-year senior Andre Szmyt is back once again. You may recall he won the Groza Award as a freshman way back in 2018, and he’s as sharp as ever this season, making 11 of his 12 attempts with a long of 50 yards. He is 83.5% in his career with a long of 54. The Tigers, of course, have their own Groza candidate in BT Potter, who just passed Chandler Catanzaro as the highest-scoring kicker in Clemson history. He is 13-15 this season (I think one of the misses went right over the goal post) with a long of 52 yards, and he trails only Travis Etienne for the most points in program history. Cuse has a pretty good, experienced return man in Trebor Pena.
Syracuse is ranked No.6 in scoring defense (13.2 points per game), No.11 in rush defense (95 yards/game), No.12 in pass defense (178.3 yards/game) and No.8 in total defense (268.8 yards/game). The Orange are ranked No.30 in scoring offense (36 points per game), No.37 in rushing offense (188.5 yards/game), No.64 in passing offense (244.3 yards/game) and No.48 in total offense (432.8 yards/game). They are No.33 in turnover margin (+0.5 per game), No.20 in red zone offense (92.86%) and No.18 in red zone defense (75%). They are No.36 in 3rd down offense (45.45%) and, surprisingly given their other defensive metrics, No.58 in 3rd down defense (36.71%).
The Tigers are finally fully healthy on the defensive side of the ball! All of the starters played at FSU last week, and the defense dominated the Noles for two and a half quarters. Xavier Thomas still isn’t 100 percent and was pretty sore after the game, but he played 32 snaps after playing just 6 at Boston College the previous week. Bryan Bresee uncharacteristically missed a few tackles but was probably not 100 percent after missing the two previous games due to a kidney infection. CB Sheridan Jones played all 76 snaps after missing 3 straight games, and CB Malcolm Greene played on special teams after missing 3 games as well. Safety RJ Mickens played 37 snaps after missing the Boston College game. Safety Tyler Venables was in for just 7 plays after missing the Boston College game as well. Dabo was clearly not happy with the way the defense finished the FSU game, allowing back-to-back touchdowns in the 4th quarter with several missed tackles and coverage busts. They had about 25 missed tackles in the game, and the players were not happy with their effort either. In fact, they held a team meeting this week to get their minds right, and I think you’ll see them play with an edge for 4 quarters on Saturday! On the bright side, LB Barrett Trotter recorded 13 tackles, earning him ACC Linebacker of the Week honors. It was the most tackles since Skalski’s 18 at Pitt last season. Myles Murphy had another impressive outing with 2 sacks, 1.5 tackles-for-loss and a forced fumble. He has really emerged over the last few games after a slow start to the season. He’s now looking like the No.1 NFL defensive end prospect that Mel Kiper projected.
Offensively, the Tigers are still humming. They have scored at least 30 points in all 7 games this season, which has only twice been done before in program history: in 2020 with Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne and 2000 with Woody Dantzler and Rich Rodriguez calling the plays. DJ has continued his stellar play with 3 pass TD’s, a rush TD and no interceptions last week. He’s made countless clutch throws and runs on 3rd down this season and has scored 21 total TD’s with just 2 INT’s, and one of those was a deflection. His completion percentage is an impressive 64.3%. To put that in perspective, Tom Brady’s career completion percentage in the NFL is 64.2%!
Brandon Streeter made a concerted effort to get the ball to Will Shipley more last week than he did at Boston College, and boy did it pay off. Shipley didn’t score for just the second game this season, but he recorded 238 all-purpose yards, earning him ACC Running Back of the Week honors. It was the most all-purpose yards for the Tigers since Etienne posted 264 against Boston College in 2020 with Trevor Lawrence out. Shipley made big plays in both the running and passing game last week, as Streeter designed several passes to him in the flat. He also finally broke a big kickoff return, 69 yards from the goal line to start the 2nd half and set up the beautiful reverse flea-flicker for a Davis Allen touchdown on the next play. That really took all of the life out of the Tallahassee crowd.
Speaking of Allen, he and sophomore Jake Briningstool have been one heck of a 1-2 punch at tight end this season. They have combined for 7 TD’s this season, and Jake has caught one in 3 of the last 4 games. Freshman WR Antonio Williams has continued to be a spark for the offense, scoring his 2nd career TD last week and making another big play on 3rd down. I wrote a few weeks ago that he needed to replace Will Taylor as the regular punt returner, and we saw Dabo make that change last week. As for Beaux Collins, if you had told me that he wouldn’t have a single catch last week, I’m not sure I would have believed that the Tigers would still score 34 points in Tallahassee! It’s nice to know that the Tigers have enough weapons that they don’t have to rely on any one player having a big game. Collins did have an impact, though, without the ball in his hands. The Tigers really attacked the perimeter in the run game and with passes to the backs, and it was the blocking of Collins and the other receivers that made it successful. I love the way sophomore RB Phil Mafah is playing right now. He’s made several key plays over the last few games with Kobe Pace sidelined for the next few weeks. It’s also been nice to see slot receiver Brannon Spector making plays lately. He lost his starting spot to freshman Antonio Williams, but Spector has made the most of his opportunities. He has 2 TD’s in the last 4 games, recovered the onside kick to seal the game last week and also stoned the fake punt attempt by the Noles.
Speaking of special teams, that has been a real strength for the Tigers this season. They are ranked No.9 nationally in special teams right now and, outside of a couple muffed punts by Taylor, they’ve been solid across the board. They have 4 blocks in the kicking game, a long kick return, a long punt return, good in coverage, stopped a fake punt and BT Potter has been darn near perfect. New starting punter Aidan Swanson has been solid as well.
The Tigers are also the only top-5 team ranked in the top 20 in turnover margin at +.86 per game. In their 3 toughest games of the season—Wake, NC State and FSU—they didn’t commit a single turnover. That is a recipe for winning! If they can make it 4 for 4 against Cuse on Saturday, they will win the game. Special teams and turnovers will go a long way to deciding who wins the College Football Playoff, so let’s hope that trend continues for the Tigers.
The Tigers are ranked No.21 in scoring offense (38.6 points per game). They are No.1 in red zone offense (35 scores in 35 attempts), No.14 in 3rd down offense (50.46%) and No.4 in tackles-for-loss (57).
All the metrics say that Syracuse is elite and as complete a team as there is in the country. But, again, that’s on paper. My gut tells me that the stats are a little inflated because of their schedule and the fact that they haven’t played a Power Five team on the road yet. One metric that doesn’t jump off the page for Cuse is explosive plays on offense. They are 60th in plays over 10 yards and 76th in plays over 20 yards. That does not bode well for the Orange because if you’re going to score on the Tigers, you’d better have some big plays. Offenses simply do not mount long scoring drives against this defense. Conversely, the Tigers are ranked 39th in plays over 20 yards and 29th in plays over 30 yards. The combined running of Tucker and Shrader can be a problem for anyone, but I think the Tigers have the speed and depth in the front seven to bottle them up. And I like what I’ve seen from the secondary over the last few games—especially with everyone back. On top of that, I expect the defensive to be out to make an example of Syracuse and prove to everyone that it is still arguably the best defense in the nation. Defensive pride is on the line in this one! Offensively, the Tigers just have too much fire power and too many weapons.
Dino has to hope the Tigers lose their starting quarterback and kicker again to have a puncher’s chance to win this one. Even then, I think Cade and the Tigers’ defense can get the job done. Make it 14 straight wins and an ACC-record 38 straight home wins in Death Valley on Homecoming!
The Prowl toward a 7th College Football Playoff and 4th National Title continues…
CLEMSON 41 Syracuse 17
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