College Football Roundtable: What We Learned From Week 3

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For the first time since 1981, Syracuse has played four games that have been decided by three points or less. The Orange beat Liberty on a field goal as time expired then lost in the same fashion against Florida State the following week. They lost in overtime to Wake Forest and then in regulation after a missed field goal against Clemson.

With five games remaining in SU’s season — all against conference opponents — our beat writers reflected on where the Orange stand.

1. How have your expectations changed since the start of the season?

Roshan Fernandez: The phrase that Syracuse head coach Dino Babers and players have repeatedly said is “this isn’t like last year.” The Orange were adamant before the season began that they’d made significant progress from their 1-10 season last year, the program’s worst record since 2005. Through seven games so far, they’ve proved that to be true — and then some. SU was a few plays away from sitting at 6-1, but its comeback fell short against Clemson, Wake Forest caught an electrifying touchdown pass in overtime and the officials missed a holding call against Florida State. The Orange have a tough schedule remaining, but they seem to have the right defensive and offensive schemes in place. I didn’t expect to see this competitive of a Syracuse team. Even if SU loses three of its remaining five games, which is quite possible with matchups against Pitt, Louisville and NC State, the Orange will have still exceeded expectations because they’ve shown immense potential. But with the ACC wide open and without its usual frontrunners, SU has the pieces to make a potential run at bowl eligibility with three wins over its remaining five games.

Connor Smith: Going into the season, I had Syracuse finishing 5-7 — I expected the Orange to move through their non-conference slate with a 4-0 record and have a midseason slump before picking up a win over Boston College, Wake Forest or Pitt. Through seven games, that has held up for the most part. SU went 3-1 in non-conference play, only losing a low-scoring game against Rutgers at home. The fall of former ACC heavyweights in Clemson (4-2) and Florida State (2-4) could’ve helped Syracuse in the conference standings, but instead, the Orange are in last place with an 0-3 record. The fact that SU has struggled in ACC play is unsurprising — Dino Babers is just 13-32 against conference foes since becoming head coach in 2016. But in this year’s wide-open ACC, there are still wins to pick up against Boston College (4-2), Virginia Tech (3-3) and Louisville (3-3). It is surprising how well Syracuse has competed during the last three games, but record-wise, this is about where I expected SU through seven games.

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Anish Vasudevan: Before the start of the season, I had Syracuse going 4-8, only winning two games in ACC play. So far that’s been accurate, since the Orange have not won a game yet in conference matchups, and they currently have a 3-4 record. Syracuse has been taking baby steps in the right direction, which was expected as it couldn’t get much worse than last season’s 1-10 finish. The Orange are at the bottom of the ACC, and they will probably remain there for the rest of the season with only one more conference win, maybe against Virginia Tech. Defensively, Syracuse has exceeded my expectations, as it’s been able to hold some of the most dynamic offenses in football to 21 or fewer points. If the Orange want a chance to win five games, that starts with the 3-3-5 and depends on if the system can dominate for the rest of the year.

Syracuse has finished 13-32 in ACC play under Dino Babers.

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2. Outside of Sean Tucker, who is Syracuse’s most important player for the rest of the season?

Fernandez: Quarterback Garrett Shrader has been the most crucial addition between this year and last year’s team. His arm isn’t as talented as Tommy DeVito’s, but Shrader’s legs have created a significant threat for SU’s offense. Either the Orange hand the ball off to Tucker, or they motion Tucker one way, draw defenders and let Shrader scramble in the other direction. Shrader’s working to improve his arm — Clemson was a particularly poor outing for him — but he’s still the clear option for the Orange moving forward. If he can improve his accuracy and decision-making on short and medium throws — which is most of SU’s throwing game — and hit an occasional deep ball, his legs and Tucker’s will take care of the rest.

Smith: It has to be Shrader. The quarterback became SU’s starter during the Liberty win, and he has held the position ever since. Although Shrader has struggled throwing the ball, he has shown improvement, and his success running the ball helped the Orange put up at least 30 points against both Florida State and Wake Forest. But against Clemson, Syracuse moved away from having Shrader run, and it only scored 14 points in the loss. If Shrader can continue to improve throwing the ball — not missing short completions or overthrowing deep balls that could go for six points — SU has a shot at making a bowl game. And using the Mississippi State transfer as part of a one-two punch with Tucker in the running game is something the Orange have found a lot of success with. Shrader is at his best scrambling for first downs and making decisions on option runs. Syracuse needs to continue to run the ball with Shrader and Tucker and find a stronger balance with the passing game throughout the rest of the season.

Vasudevan: Mikel Jones has been the X-factor for the Orange this year, anchoring the 3-3-5 defense in the package’s second year. Syracuse head coach Dino Babers said that Jones was the “quarterback” of the unit, succeeding at one of the most integral positions of middle linebacker. He leads the team with 65 tackles, 22 more than the next closest player. On every defensive snap, Jones is somewhere near the ball. But when he’s not playing well, the defense folds as well. Jones plays the vital “QB spy” role against dual-threat quarterbacks, which worked against Liberty’s Malik Willis holding him to just 49 rushing yards. Against Florida State, however, Jordan Travis torched Syracuse’s defense with his legs, confusing Jones on key snaps. SU hasn’t had a lot of highlights this year, but Jones is definitely one of them as the next greatest defensive player from the school.

3. What’s one aspect of the Orange that’s disappointed through seven games?

Fernandez: Syracuse branded itself as Special Teams U, but its worst unit this season has been special teams. A series of miscues against Rutgers early in the year was SU’s low point, but special teams has failed to maintain a standard of consistency. James Williams flashed bright spots with strong punts and shanked others for as few as 10 yards. Andre Szmyt became SU’s all-time leader in field goals made, all-time points leader and nailed his first-ever game-winning kick to lift SU over Liberty, but he is still 7-of-11 on the year with a missed PAT. SU’s consistently flagged for blocks in the back on kickoff and punt returns, and returner Trebor Pena — while speedy and elusive — regularly took big risks by electing not to call for a fair catch with defenders in his face.

Smith: Coaching decisions. You’d think after only leading Syracuse to one win last season Babers would feel more pressure to make decisions that would help SU win games. But instead, the Orange have lost their last three games in large part due to Babers’ inconsistent decision making. Sometimes, Babers takes an aggressive approach (wanting to go for the two-point conversion in the final seconds of the Wake Forest game to take the lead), but sometimes he takes a conservative approach (going for the game-tying field goal against Clemson instead of running the ball on fourth-and-1). Either way, fans are unhappy, and Syracuse is winless in ACC play. A large part of that comes down to Babers making the wrong decisions. Accepting a third-down penalty on Wake Forest ended up costing SU a touchdown in a 40-37 loss. And turning to the inconsistent Szmyt instead of the nation’s top rusher late against Clemson cost Syracuse a chance at a marquee win. Throughout seven games, Babers’ coaching mistakes have been the one constant that has prevented the Orange from being one of the top teams in the ACC.

Vasudevan: Syracuse can’t win close games. While the Orange dominated some games during the second half, pulling off comebacks against tenets in the conference like Clemson, they still were in the “L” column as the final result. This comes from poor coaching decisions, whether Babers decides to go or not go for it on fourth down. Syracuse has only scored in every quarter twice — in its opening win over Ohio and its overtime loss to Wake Forest. Syracuse’s offensive line choked in the overtime period against the Demon Deacons, after efficiently making up for absent players throughout all of regulation. Then at other times it comes down to poor special teams. Andre Szmyt — who was hailed as SU’s next star kicker — has struggled the entire year. He’s missed either a PAT or field goal in Syracuse’s last four games. Syracuse rushed the field after Szmyt hit the last-second field goal to beat Liberty. But if the Orange ever want that feeling again, they need to drive the ball late and not beat themselves in order to finish games.

4. Of the remaining games, which opponent presents the biggest challenges?

Fernandez: NC State will be the Orange’s hardest game of the season, with Syracuse traveling to Raleigh before Thanksgiving week to face the No. 18 Wolfpack. This game could potentially be crucial if SU’s still in the running to get to six wins and become bowl eligible, and back-to-back contests at NC State and then at home against Pittsburgh won’t make that an easy road. The Wolfpack have the second-best defense in the conference right now, and the best rushing defense that allows just 93 rushing yards per game. SU has struggled when it can’t run the ball, as we saw against Clemson when it resorted to an uneven passing game that’s still establishing its identity. SU will need to sort that out and still find a way to run the ball if it wants to leave Raleigh with a win.

Smith: NC State has stood out as one of the top teams in the league through its first six games. The Wolfpack are 4-0 at home, and Syracuse will be traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina — a place it hasn’t won since 2013 — in November. NC State is also the highest-ranked ACC team at No. 18, and has looked good against South Florida, Boston College and Clemson. Quarterback Devin Leary has been one of the most consistent passers in the league, throwing for over 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns with only two interceptions and a completion percentage over 67%. By the time Syracuse flies down to Research Triangle, it will likely be in another November slump, and facing the top team in the ACC will prevent a big challenge to a team trying to chase bowl eligibility.

Vasudevan: Pitt might pose the hardest challenge for Syracuse as the season enters its back half. The Orange haven’t been good against pass-first defenses the entire season as they struggle with man-to-man looks, and the Panthers have the second-most passing yards in the ACC, recording 358 per game. SU has stayed in games because of its ability to stop dynamic offenses, but Pitt’s led by Kenny Pickett might be too much to ask from Jones and the rest of the defense. The Panthers are also solid on the other side of the ball with 21 total sacks this season, tied for second-best in the ACC. If Shrader waits in the pocket too long — which occasionally happens on mandatory passing plays — he might get mauled because of SU’s makeshift offensive line. The Orange will most likely finish the regular season at home with a loss to Pitt.

5. What’s one weakness that Syracuse needs to fix heading into the final five games of its season? One hidden strength it needs to take more advantage of?

Fernandez: Syracuse must figure out a way to finish games. It can make excuses about Babers’ poor coaching decisions or poor clock management and missed officiating calls, but at the end of the day, SU’s defense let FSU drive 63 yards on seven plays and set up the game-winning field goal. Shrader took a nine-yard sack in overtime against Wake Forest and then had to kick a field goal, and then watched as the Demon Deacons won the game in two plays with a touchdown. It had 4:40 to score a touchdown and beat Clemson, and it drove 63 yards downfield, but the drive sputtered out and the field goal missed. There are plenty of valid excuses, but the bottom line is that SU isn’t closing out games as strongly as it should be.

One hidden strength is that SU’s flashed potential even without Taj Harris. Courtney Jackson has been good after the catch, Anthony Queeley has been an occasional deep threat and Tucker has been a good outlet option for Shrader. Syracuse’s receivers have got to work harder to get open, but it still has the right pieces to work with.

Smith: The Orange need to improve throwing the ball. DeVito was a pass-first quarterback with a strong arm, but struggled to manufacture points and wins in his two-plus seasons as SU’s signal-caller. Shrader posted a poor 45.9% completion percentage against Clemson and has shown to be a run-first option. But the Orange still need to work on a balance between running and throwing the ball, and that starts with Babers and Shrader. As he continues to learn the playbook and his receivers better, Shrader should improve, but SU’s weakness of not being able to effectively throw the ball hurt it against Clemson.

A hidden strength Syracuse needs to take advantage of is pressuring the quarterback. In Tony White’s 3-3-5 system, the number of blitzers on any given play varies. Defensive lineman Cody Roscoe has found the most success so far, recording 7.5 sacks, second-most in the ACC. The SU linebacking unit has shown plenty of improvement from last season, too. White should continue calling more unique blitzes and stunts upfront to confuse opposing offenses, as well as try to get more pressure on the quarterback before he throws because as seen in recent games, Syracuse’s secondary isn’t elite. Garrett Williams and Duce Chestnut have been beaten in man coverage several times for touchdowns, but getting more pressure can limit the amount of time the secondary has to sit in coverage.

Vasudevan: Consistency is what the Orange need to work on. Every play Syracuse makes different mistakes, whether it’s blocking assignments, defensive matchups or poor quarterback decisions. Good teams stay consistent. If SU wants to end the season with a record greater than .500, it has to get as close to perfect as possible with its individual play. One hidden strength Syracuse has is its ability to be dynamic with the rushing attack on offense. On certain plays, the Orange can make three rushing options with Shrader, Tucker and a motioning receiver. The jet sweep option with receivers like Courtney Jackson have led to big gains, spreading out the field horizontally which is a disadvantage to the defense. Syracuse needs to keep using plays like this to confuse opposing defenses and get drives going on the ground.

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