NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse
Syracuse Head Coach Dino Babers (Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

Believe it or not, the Syracuse Orange are now in year 5 under the reign of Head Coach Dino Babers.  And what a roller coaster it has been.

Sparked in 2018 by gritty senior quarterback Eric Dungey, who led the Orange to 10 wins and a trophy in the ACC’s 2nd slot bowl game (Camping World Bowl), the Babers’ regime has thus far failed to capitalize on the program’s early momentum.  Syracuse backfilled the 2018 campaign by putting an Elite 11 quarterback at the helm in 2019, Tommy DeVito.  Thus far, those accolades have failed to produce.

Offense

Babers has been known throughout his head coaching career as an offensive guru, starting with coaching Jimmy Garoppolo at Eastern Illinois. He followed with by replacing Dave Clawson, current Wake Forest head coach, at Bowling Green.  There he led the Falcons to a MAC championship in 2015 as part of a 10-win season where the offense produced 8 games of 40+ points. So far in 2020, Syracuse (0-2, 0-2) enters week 3 of its schedule in arguably the most dire position offensively that Babers has ever faced.

Through two games in 2020, DeVito has thrown for 144 yards total.  He has been sacked 14 times.  No, those sacks were not simply due to one bad game.  Both North Carolina and Pittsburgh tallied 7 sacks apiece.  The Syracuse offense has produced exactly one touchdown, and of course it came via the back-up quarterback who connected on play over the top for 69 yards against Pittsburgh. That play accounted for 69 of Syracuse's 171 total yards for the game.

To make matters worse, the trying times on offense are only somewhat under Babers’ control.  Syracuse entered the preseason knowing its offensive line had razor thin depth.  Before the season started, the Orange lost starters at both guard positions as well as first-off-the-bench key reserves.  Adding to the depth disarray, the Orange lost its first and second string running back to opt-outs before game 1.

Common wisdom in baseball is that you are defined defensively by the strength up the middle (catcher, pitcher, second baseman, shortstop, center field).  In Syracuse terms, they’ve lost 2/3 of their middle from an already challenged personnel group.  As Georgia Tech experienced last year with its own injuries on the offensive line, an offensive coordinator cannot wave a magic wand to make things better.

Speaking of offensive coordinators, Syracuse has a new one in 2020 that will be familiar to Jackets’ fans.  The Orange brought in Sterlin Gilbert, previously the offensive coordinator at USF in 2017 and 2018.  In 2018, the USF Bulls racked up 35 points offensively en route to a 49-38 win over the Jackets in Tampa, FL.  Thus far, the early returns at Syracuse speak for itself, caveats previously noted.

Defense

If transition of scheme on offense wasn’t enough, Syracuse also transitioned to the 3-3-5 defense under new defensive coordinator, Tony White.  White coached defensive backs at Arizona State and was promoted to defensive coordinator in December before making the transition to Syracuse.  Thus far, the returns for the Orange have been surprisingly positive.

Despite the anemic Orange offense, Syracuse entered the 4th quarter of each of its first two games trailing within striking distance.  Against the Tar Heels on the road, the Orange trailed 10-6 entering the fourth.  Against the Panthers, the Orange trailed 21-10, the eventual final score.  Overall, not bad for a defense hung out to dry.

Given Georgia Tech’s turnover woes, it should be noted that the Orange’s best player on defense is junior safety Andre Cisco.  Simply put, Cisco is a ball hawk.  Somehow under the radar out of IMG Academy, Cisco managed to make national All-America teams his freshman year (not the freshman teams, mind you) after leading the NCAA with 7 interceptions.  He was All-ACC Second Team during his sophomore campaign in 2019.  He entered the 2020 season as the FBS Active Leader in interceptions (12) and #2 in passes defended per game (1.27). Thus far in 2020, he’s on the board with 1 pick off of Sam Howell.  He is everywhere on the field.

Special Teams

The Orange enter the game versus Georgia Tech with a decided advantage on special teams.  Based on what Georgia Tech has shown early that may not be saying much, however the comparison is most stark at the field goal kicking position.  Kicker Andre Szmyt, a former walk-on, was the 2018 Lou Groza award winner.  He is 50 for 58 for his career and has connected from over 50 in each of his first two full seasons.

The Orange also have a fairly dynamic punt returner this year in Nykeim Johnson.  At 5’ 8”, his low center of gravity and short area quickness makes him a threat to take it to the house.  He did just that against North Carolina, however the return was called back due to a blindside hit by the Orange return team that had no impact on the outcome of the play.

Keys To The Game

I’ll start by beating the familiar drum.  Turnovers and Special Teams.  If Georgia Tech can limit turnovers, I think the Jackets take this one.  Even with turnovers, it should be possible for Tech to stay in this via solid defensive play.

Of course, the injuries to the Syracuse OL has a doppelganger in Georgia Tech’s DL.  It could be argued that the Jackets will field the weakest defensive line that the Orange have faced thus far.  And you could say without argument that the Orange have a leg up on Special Teams, despite our absolute unit in Pressley Harvin (mandatory weekly shout-out).

Both Syracuse and Georgia Tech enter this game at inflection points.  Both schools, coaches and fanbases likely view this as a moment to keep the season on track.  If not, the result may lead to a spiral effect the other direction.  You never like to play a team with its back against the wall, particularly one playing at home for the first time this season. 

My prediction: Jackets 28-21.  The Jackets also need this win badly.  In the end the Syracuse offense likely remains mostly inept with few ways to overcome their issues in 7 days.  Assuming there is no starting quarterback change in Upstate NY, the Jackets will be facing a statue quarterback who generally runs only to keep defenses honest.  Because of this, even if Georgia Tech turns the ball over, it may require an opportunistic Orange defense to aid its team in the scoring column. 

Recognizing the Orange woes on offense, Collins and Patenaude can call a more conservative gameplan offensively, enabling Sims and the offense to regain its confidence and avoid the volume of unnecessary mistakes that doomed the Jackets this past Saturday. The Jackets will come back to Atlanta undefeated in ACC play and with an opportunity to use a bye week to rest up for its most daunting stretch of the season.

Jahmyr Gibbs (21) runs for a touchdown (Hyosub Shin / ajc.com)

Atlanta, GA – Down six starters and depth at key positions, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (1-1, 1-0) faded late Saturday night in their first home tilt of the 2020 season.  The Central Florida Knights (1-0, 0-0), a respected top 25 program over the last few years, emerged victorious by a final score of 49-21.

The Jackets entered the game with gaps and question marks across its Above The Line (ATL) depth chart when compared to preseason expectations.  Absent from the offense today were starters RB Jordan Mason and TE Dylan Deveney.  Another TE, Dylan Leonard, was a scratch.

The damage done to the defense made matters worse.  Tech’s defensive line was missing starters DE Antonneous Clayton, DT TK Chimedza and DL Antwan Owens along with key rotational player DE Curtis Ryans, a key cog in the Jackets’ week 1 win against Florida State.  Tech’s top CB Tre Swilling also missed his second consecutive game.

“We had to get creative in practice this week… minimal 12 personnel on offense and three down linemen on defense,” said Head Coach Geoff Collins in his postgame interview with radioman Wiley Ballard.

Let’s be clear.  Neither Collins nor the players claimed moral victories.  Save those for today’s victor who is wont for fabricated titles and hardware.

For Tech the mantra is next man up.  The team fought valiantly, showing signs of life into the 4th quarter against an opponent that most outside of the Georgia Tech program expected to roll easily today.  A 33-yard touchdown run by true freshman RB Jahmyr Gibbs narrowed the Knights’ lead to 28-21 with 13:12 remaining in the game.  The home crowd was energized as was the home team.

But football games are won on the line of scrimmage, and Tech began with one hand tied behind its back on the defensive front.  Evidence of wear and tear to that unit showed itself late as the Knights’ vaunted offense reasserted itself in the 4th quarter, scoring three consecutive touchdowns immediately after Gibbs’ jaunt without much resistance.  Tech’s offense sputtered in response, and the final chapter of the story was written.

Despite the absence of key players, the Jackets had plenty of opportunities within their control to affect the outcome of the game.  Turnovers and special teams often determine college football games and today was no different.

Following an impressive first game despite a few mistakes, QB Jeff Sims led a Tech offense today that coughed up the ball five times.  Of the Jackets five turnovers, two came thru the air and three came via the ground game.

Special teams was a mixed bag.  Rarely is “mixed bag” a positive, however after the debacle in Tallahassee that descriptor is an improvement.  The Jackets must resolve its field goal issues to become a threat in the ACC this year and in the future.  See 2014.  Otherwise, “mixed bag” will lead to a new definition for “scoring range”.

There were certainly signs of light.  Jahmyr Gibbs lived up to his billing, ripping off a 75 yard kickoff return on his first collegiate touch.  Gibbs finished with 219 all purpose yards and two touchdowns. 

Tech’s offense has now shown a pattern of improvement as compared to last year.  Sims led the offense to 471 yards of total offense.  Nine different receivers caught balls for 244 yards thru the air, demonstrating a balance and proficiency without needing to rely on one or two playmakers.  To that end, noticeably absent despite the team success were WR Ahmarean Brown and WR Jalen Camp, each of which tallied a single reception for 11 yards.

The Jackets managed 12 chunk plays, defined as passing plays of 15+ yards and running plays of 10+ yards.  The distribution was an even 6 and 6, respectively.  Overall the offense produced 5.8 yards per play and converted 7 of 15 third downs.

Last but certainly not least, punter Pressley Harvin remained an “absolute unit”, averaging 51.2 yards per punt.  Of his four punts, three ended up inside the 20, with one boom ball traveling 70 yards.

Ultimately it was feast or famine on offense.  Combined with a shorthanded defense forced to play 92 plays, the flood gates opened late for Tech’s foe.  Next week brings Tech back into ACC play with a road trip to Syracuse and an opportunity to go 2-0 in ACC play.

Courtesy of ACC Digital Network

A post-mortem following yesterday’s wild victory for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (1-0, 1-0) over the Florida State Seminoles (0-1, 0-1), starting with my overall takeaway.

We are an improved team.  We are not a good team, yet.

Based on Saturday’s performance, both the national media narrative and the Vegas narrative are likely to change going forward.  That is, the ceiling for this year’s Yellow Jackets squad is higher than most expected in the preseason.  Picked last out of 15 teams in the conference by the ACC media and pegged as a 13-point underdog by Vegas in the opener, the Jackets effectively shattered those expectations one game into the season following a 16-13 win on the road in Doak Campbell Stadium.

Let’s break down some of the highlights and opportunities for improvement, of which there are more than are included here.

What Went Well

  • Quarterback Jeff Sims

What more can you say about the grit and poise out of the true freshman from Florida? Originally a Florida State commit and allegedly asked to look elsewhere by new Seminoles Head Coach Mike Norvell, Sims played up to his Elite 11 credentials and then some in a redemption game of sorts.  Connecting on 24 of 35 of his passes (68.5%) for 277 yards, along with 64 yards on the ground, Sims stat line by itself was a good one for his first collegiate game reps.

More than that, the intangibles showed up.  He showed above average awareness in the pocket, and above average ability to keep plays alive, and a selflessness to give up his body for the extra yards to extend drives.  There were absolutely freshman mistakes, some of which showed up in the stat line and others where he was more fortunate.  However the body of work as compared to that of a typical true freshman suggests the Jackets got a good one.

  • Offensive Line Improvement

Much was made of the NFL talent on the Seminoles’ defensive line.  There probably aren’t many Yellow Jackets who would start for the Seminoles defense based on recruiting rankings and next level projections.  In the end the Yellow Jackets offensive line, now in year 2 under line coach Brent Key, conceded just one sack. The Seminoles generated six tackles for loss (TFL), some of which occurred on the perimeter on failed jet sweeps and wide receiver screens.

The offensive line can lay claim to the most decisive improvement for one position group from year 1 to year 2.  Credit goes to Offensive Coordinator Dave Patenaude and Quarterback Jeff Sims as well.  The Jackets’ offensive strategy appeared designed to get the ball out quickly and exploit the short and intermediate game, rarely taking the time required for shots downfield, and Sims was masterful at avoiding pressure when plays inevitably broke down.

  • Defense Locked Down After Early Miscues

After the Seminoles’ opening possession ended in an all too familiar easy touchdown drive, there were likely few Tech fans who would have predicted that the Jackets would yield just 6 points the rest of the way.  That is exactly what Defensive Coordinator Andrew Thacker’s defense did.  The defense was disruptive and forced 4 turnovers (1 on downs).  They gave up just 3.8 yards per play and sacked Seminoles Quarterback James Blackman three times.  Yes, this was a beleaguered and much maligned Florida State offense, but how many times in recent past have we seen those same offenses move through the Jackets’ defense with ease?

  • Confidence and Swagger

At the end of the day, fair or not, wins and losses often affect perception of the components as much as anything else.  In order to win though, one team needs to be the better team for 4 quarters, and that is exactly what the Jackets proved on Saturday.  The pregame ESPN match-up predictor suggested that the Jackets had a 24% chance of winning.  The in-game predictor suggested that the Jackets were underdogs into the 4th quarter, up until Defensive End Curtis Ryans’ strip sack of Blackman. At no time did it appear that Tech lost focus.  “Competition is King” reared its beautiful face until the final whistle.

Room For Improvement

  • Special Teams

There’s not much more that needs to be said that wasn’t readily observed.  The Jackets struggled with field goal protection, field goal kicking and in the kickoff return game.  Even famed Punter Pressley Harvin had a misfire, but past performance suggests his first punt attempt late in the 2nd quarter (you read that right) was an aberration.  Nowhere to go but up from here.  Kudos to true freshman kicker Jude Kelley for delivering when it mattered most and hitting the game winner.

  • Penalties

Eight (8) flags for 80 yards just isn’t going to get the job done against most ACC teams, especially on the road.  While penalties rarely come at good times, one could argue that the timing of yesterday’s hiccups nearly handed the game to the Seminoles.  The Jackets moved the ball with relative ease between the 20’s, however ill-timed personal fouls created headwinds for an offense that is still trying to find and confirm its identity.  The missed field goals might not have been attempted at all if not for the Jackets’ miscues.  The good news is the penalties can be learning opportunities, which are much easier to swallow when complemented with a win.

  • Quality of Opponent

Simply put, Florida State is not a great team.  Despite their talent and program history, the ‘Noles were average last year, finishing 6-7 (4-4) under since-fired Head Coach Willie Taggart.  Now they’re going through a transition of their own and we caught them during their first live game reps under new Head Coach Mike Norvell.  Their quarterback, Blackman, has struggled through a handful of different offensive coordinators to the point where any quarterback’s head would be spinning.  Then the program went through an offseason without a full install of their new offensive and defensive schemes due to Covid-19, along with off-field drama among the coaches and players.  Putting it mildly, it was a great time for the Jackets to catch the Seminoles.

Closing Thoughts

Restating my post in the game 1 preview thread:

My hypothesis is that Week 1 will be sloppy in CFB. Whether that's due to new practice schedules, revised team protocols (e.g., less contact), or off-field distractions/priorities, there are a variety of reasons this season and especially week 1 may not match expectations when compared to other years, regardless of roster talent and coaching. It might also mean some teams inadvertently appear to "click" more than they otherwise will, whether that's due to random chance or an under-prepared opponent.

What does that mean for my week 1 expectations? I'm mentally prepared that anything can happen. And the results may not be indicative of future performance. I just hope we're the benefactors of the unpredictability.”

May I emphasize “the results may not be indicative of future performance”?  Tech won and Tech improved.  It is hard to demand much more than that.  But as the areas for improvement suggest, we have a long way to go before we can say Tech has arrived.  The good news is there are many signs of hope and potential for continued improvement.  The speed at which the Jackets realize that improvement will go a long way toward determining their record in the 2020 season.