With the football season less than 11 weeks away, it is never too soon to begin to look at the opponents that will try to derail the Clemson Tigers’ quest for a second-consecutive national championship and their third appearance in the College Football Playoff in as many years.
Today, we continue our series with the Tigers’ seventh opponent—the Syracuse Orange.
First-year head coach Dino Babers was brought in to the Syracuse fold to light a fire under, not only the football team but the fanbase as well—and that is exactly what he did bringing his warp-speed, high-flying offense to the great northeast.
The former Baylor assistant coach, and head coach at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green quickly learned that there is a big difference between winning at the mid-major level and winning in the ACC, as he struggled to a 4-8 season in his first year.
Now entering year two, Babers understands that it will take some time to reach the level of the ACC’s elite programs—Clemson and Florida State.
“I think the biggest thing is that we were really, really far behind, obviously, and when you look at the top people in the conference, the Florida States and the Clemsons, and what they have available to them compared to where some of the schools that are not so far up at the top. I think it’s a huge disadvantage for us,” Babers said.
“And if you’re really serious about being competitive in the ACC, if you’re really serious about winning, you may not need to have everything that they have, but there’s definitely some things that they do up there at those schools that we need to be involved in.”
The Orange’s offense improvement from 2015 to 2016 was nothing short of spectacular.
In the course of a single year the Orange went from 119th in total offense to 42nd and from 117th in passing offense to 11th. The only place where they saw a drop-off was in their rushing offense, which fell from 77th to 115th.
Even with the loss of one of the top receivers in the country, Amba Etta-Tawo, the combination of Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips provide a one-two punch that most teams in the ACC would love to have.
However, if the Orange are going to improve this season in the win-loss column they will have to get better in the running game after averaging only 3.2 yards per carry last season—something that Babers understands.
“Well, I think there’s no doubt that we need to be better in the run game. You just can’t go back and throw the ball every single snap and be consistently good. You’re only going to be occasionally great, and that’s not good enough,” Babers said. “I think the physicality of the game, any time that you can run the football, that means you’re winning the physical battle in the game, and if you win the physical battle there’s a very good chance and most likely that you’re going to win the football game unless turnovers or something else comes into play.
“So we’re working hard on not only running the football but making sure we’re able to stop the run, and to me those are still the keys minus turnovers and special teams are the two main keys to winning football games.
The Orange defense could not be much worse in 2017 than they were in 2016, giving up over 500 yards and 39 points per game last season.
However, there is hope that they will be significantly better this season—as they return ten starters, the top 13 tacklers and everyone on the defensive line returns.
Now, the mission becomes finishing the plays that they had a chance to make last season.
“Well, I think that all of those defensive linemen are back. We didn’t lose anybody. I thought we hired a defensive line coach,” Babers said. “We separated the defensive line, so we got more emphasis there with two coaches, one coaching the ends and one coaching the tackles. I think that they worked very well today, and I think with all the young men coming back, twice as much emphasis on that part of it, I thought they did a much better job of getting to the passer and having — when they had opportunities for one-on-ones, bringing them home for sacks and pressures on the quarterback.”