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Meet Syracuse, which is trying to validate a breakout 2018 season

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[Alanis] You you you Otto know [/Morissette]

Holy Cross v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Dino Babers’ Syracuse program broke out in a big way last season, winning 10 games after winning eight combined the two years prior. The Orange had experienced players in some key places, they had an elite special teams unit to help them in the margins, and they were a little lucky, too.

The challenge after a season like that one is that you’ve established a new long-term baseline on the plus side of .500—not always a simple thing to do. Certainly not a straightforward task when you don’t recruit at a high level, and Syracuse doesn’t.

The Orange’s start to 2019 has been a mixed bag, what with that surprising 62-20 loss to Maryland on the ledger. That aside, the Orange have basically done exactly what has been expected of them: they beat Liberty, Western Michigan, and Holy Cross, and they lost to Clemson.

But only that Maryland result potentially offers any insight into the quality of this Syracuse team.

Just like NC State, Syracuse is having trouble replacing the talent that graduated after 2018. Quarterback Eric Dungey’s graduation is notable, though probably the most significant losses were up front, as John Cassillo outlined in our Q&A. The Orange lost multiple starters at offensive line, which has made running the ball a bigger challenge—it also doesn’t help that Tommy DeVito isn’t at all the threat to run with the ball that Dungey was.

DeVito has been comparable to Dungey in the passing game but the team’s struggling ground game has Syracuse averaging a modest 5.2 yards per play overall. That’s down from 5.7 in 2018.

Syracuse comes into Thursday averaging only 3.4 yards per carry, and it has been held well below 100 yards rushing by both of the power-conference opponents it has faced. The situation this year would be ideal for a quarterback who can improvise and provide a jolt here and there with some scrambles out of the pocket. Dungey was that guy; DeVito is not. So the Orange will just have to improve on the ground the old fashioned way: by improving as a run blocking team. I don’t know how much better they’re capable of playing, though.

On the defensive side, playing a disruptive brand of football remains critical to Syracuse’s success. The Orange defense wasn’t especially noteworthy on a down-to-down basis in 2018, as it allowed 5.8 yards per play. But that defense also racked up 96 tackles for loss (20th nationally) and 31 takeaways (3rd). That painted over some cracks.

They are again doing well in both of those categories while again giving up 5.8 yards per play on the average, good for 82nd nationally.

Syracuse was able to work around the defense’s problems last year in part because the offense averaged 40 points per game, in part because of a big positive turnover margin, and in part because it played some of the best special teams in the country.

The Orange returned their place kicker and punter, so they don’t have to worry about that area, and I mean we can joke about this stuff, but there is a solid advantage to be had from being great in the kicking game. Field position matters because yardage is points: the expected point value of a drive that begins at your own 20 is a lot different than the point value of a drive that begins at midfield.

Syracuse did a good job of boosting its odds last season by winning the field position battle consistently. And also making 30 of 34 field goal attempts.

But it seems clear at this point that this offense is not going to be able to bail the team out to the extent it did in 2018: the Orange are averaging a hair under 29 points per game, even with the cupcake portion of the schedule factored in.

I mentioned also that the Orange benefited from good luck last season, which is where turnover margin comes in. They were fifth in the country at +13 in 2018. That was hugely beneficial, obviously, but there is no predictive value year-over-year in turnover margin, so what props you up one year can be a debilitating force the next.

They’re sitting at +1 this year, but even that is pretty fortunate given that they’re averaging more than two giveaways per game. Syracuse is one of 39 FBS teams to commit 10 turnovers or more in 2019 and 35 of ‘em have a negative turnover margin. If the offense can’t clean up the mistakes, can the defense continue to match pace? I don’t love those odds. However this plays out, it’s probably going to have a significant impact on the Cuse’s final win total.

There’s never any telling how the whims of the turnover gods will affect a single game, so the best we can do is ballpark it based on what we do know.

NC State’s defense has been good against the run and is definitely capable of shutting down Syracuse’s lackluster rushing attack. The Orange have the better passing game but DeVito is more mistake-prone than Dungey was, and if they have to rely on DeVito a lot, that may end up hurting.

The Wolfpack can definitely run the ball on this defense, but this is a worrisome time to be shuffling the line around, considering the disruptive nature of the Orange front four. Both defensive lines have been good at creating pressure so perhaps the more successful of the two makes the difference in the end.

The potential for calamity lies everywhere! That’s not a bad team slogan, actually.