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.
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.
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.
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.