Head Coach: Dino Babers (1st year)
2016 Game: September 24 - at PAWS ARF
Syracuse’s Strengths: The Orange have a new man in charge, and Dino Babers is looking to bring his success at Bowling Green to the frozen tundra of Syracuse, New York. Babers has a solid returning quarterback in Eric Dungey, who was efficient in 2015 and should be able to manage the Orange offense solidly this year. Dungey will also benefit from the return of a very solid wide receiver, Steve Ishmael, who averaged 9.3 yards per target last year and could explode in Babers’ potent offense. Defensively, the Orange return some great linebackers, including middle man Zaire Franklin who had 11 tackles for loss and three sacks last year. Syracuse’s secondary returns their top six players from last year as well, giving them an experienced defensive backbone.
Syracuse’s Weaknesses: While Syracuse is solid at the skill positions, it is greatly lacking in the trenches. The Orange return no major contributors from last year’s defensive front and only two starters on the offensive side of the line. The defense may struggle to generate pressure and, on offense, there could be loopholes through which defensive linemen could make plays. Even with all of the team’s returning players in their back seven, this defense was NOT good last year, ranking 100th overall in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ ranking. Despite a new exciting coach and some solid weapons on offense, this is a rebuilding year for the Orange, which makes this a very winnable game for UConn.
How They Match Up: Offensively, the line needs to give Bryant Shirreffs time in the pocket to move and work the field. Syracuse’s strength is in its linebacker corps, so Shirreffs has to be decisive on short passes and not let the dynamic Franklin read his eyes and spy on him too much. Defensively, the likes of Foley Fatukasi and Luke Carrezola have to wreak havoc in the backfield and prevent Dungey from getting into a rhythm. Jamar Summers will have to step up and take the dynamic Ishmael on. If the Huskies execute, they can pull the pseudo-upset over Babers and company.
John Cassillo of the Syracuse SB Nation site, Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician, was kind enough to answer a few questions as the Orange and the Huskies rekindle this old Big East rivalry.
1) Where are expectations for Dino Babers in his first year? Are Cuse fans bracing for a "year zero" or is there reason to believe he can get off to a good start?
I think a lot of people are fairly realistic about this team's ceiling this year (maybe not so much long-term), and will be happy with a team that looks more competent and competitive, even without the wins. We didn't really help ourselves schedule-wise this year, so it's going to be tough sledding to beat more than five or six or these opponents at most. There are reasons to believe the offense can adapt quickly since there are some quality pieces there at the skill positions. But defensively... things will be difficult.
2) How do Syracuse fans feel about having UConn Football on the schedule?
I was pretty vocal about not liking the move when it was announced. We do well recruiting in New England and in Connecticut, plus we play at Boston College every other year. UConn and Syracuse have also never really cared about one another on the football field, making this one even less important. To me, scheduling AAC teams is a poor idea for most power conference teams, in general. Win and you were supposed to. Lose and you "suffered a major upset." Lose-lose.
Now I'm sort of over the complaints and just want to get on with the series. Still, would rather just trade this in for a more stable hoops series with you guys.
3) Is Eric Dungey expected to be the starter under center or are there people pushing him for the starting QB job?
I'd be shocked if Dungey isn't under center when the season gets started vs. Colgate. He's the most experienced QB on the roster, probably has the most upside and has been working with the first-team all offseason. If his 2015 hadn't been cut short by injury, there would be little question about his status as the starter. Back-up Zack Mahoney just doesn't have the same arm by any stretch, even if he can run (a skill that will be de-emphasized in this new scheme anyway).
4) Babers is an offensive-minded coach who likes to move the ball downfield quickly, is the Syracuse roster equipped to do that or are you expecting a transition period before the Orange can run his ideal offense?
Like I mentioned above, there are some pieces on the roster that can help Babers's attack get off and running quickly. Dungey showed himself very capable of running an offense right off the bat last year, and seems excited for the opportunity this scheme brings. We have three pretty good wide receivers, including one (Steve Ishmael) who might be in the NFL as soon as next fall. At running back, there's a good deal of speed with Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal (and maybe Jordan Fredericks, if his lost weight makes him any quicker). Those players should all provide positive contributions to transforming this offense into something great, but this is far from a finished product yet.
5) Which position groups on either side of the ball are looking like they're going to be strengths heading into the season?
Offensively, running back is the one that brings back plenty of experience and some varied skill sets that could show improvement just by way of being used correctly this season. Mentioned the three primary names (Strickland, Fredericks and Neal) already, but senior George Morris is also very experienced, and between the four of them, there should be a fresh ball-carrier out there at all times.
Over on the defensive side, things are a little rough, admittedly. But if we're looking for a strength there, it has to be the linebackers. Syracuse has done a nice job of developing linebackers over the last decade or so, and that's continued with this group. They're a veteran unit with depth and good speed. The only hesitation with this unit is the changes they'll need to make switching to a Tampa-2. In Scott Shafer's old scheme, linebackers were a major part of a constant blitz. Here, they'll need to play in coverage more. We'll see how that goes.
6) Who are a few playmakers to keep an eye on offensively?
Already mentioned Ishmael, but worth noting again. His career numbers don't reflect it because we had some terrible offensive schemes the last two years, but he's a sure-handed wideout who's quick and just knows how to get open in any part of the field. Elsewhere, slot receiver Ervin Philips might be the fastest player on the field and if he's improved his catching ability this offseason, that could present some interesting mismatches in the flat. One sleeper I'd keep an eye out for is wide receiver Jamal Custis. The junior hasn't been given a ton of chances thus far, but he's a huge target (tight end body with wide receiver speed) that can simply post up against smaller corners in the red zone. Should be fun to see him finally utilized correctly there.
7) What percentage would you put the odds of a Syracuse win at?
It's a road game against a team that did make a bowl last year. Still, I do think the tempo of the Orange offense could be too much for UConn to keep up with (yes, even keeping your stout defense in mind). I'm not overly certain, but I'll go with something like 60% in favor of Syracuse. So that's a toss-up by most win probability standards.