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Game of the Week Preview: Clemson at Syracuse

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Dino Babers and Syracuse have proven to be the most consistent current challenger to Clemson in the ACC.

Overview -- Though the contest lost some national luster after Syracuse was soundly beaten by Maryland last Saturday, there are still many storylines at play. The Orange obviously upset Clemson two years ago and took the Tigers to the absolute brink this past season. Injuries to Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence clearly impacted both games, but Dino Babers and Syracuse have proven to be the most consistent current challenger to Clemson in the ACC. Additionally, the Carrier Dome remains one of the toughest places to play in the entire country, especially for setting like this. Week-to-week, the spotlight follows the defending national champions as the Tigers, in a near-consensus opinion, already appear to be a lock for the College Football Playoff. Clemson enters this weekend having won 17 consecutive games, the nation's longest streak.    

Why to Watch -- Because there is a chance. At least that is what recent results tell us. It doesn't look like there are many even-possibilities for a Clemson loss the rest of the regular season; Syracuse, winners of ten games in 2018, has both talent and a track record here. From quarterback to edge rusher to special teams, the Orange have playmakers worthy of the big stage. The sheer success of the Tigers, who cruised past Texas A&M a week ago, has become must-see TV. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and a star-studded receiving corps led by Justyn Ross headline college football's most complete offensive unit. Add in Syracuse signal caller Tommy DeVito and there is the potential for fireworks in this one. The coaching matchup, featuring Dabo Swinney and Dino Babers, will be an outstanding chessmatch once again. 

Keys for Clemson

1. Run Travis and Lyn-J -- Syracuse just allowed Maryland to rush for 354 yards and six touchdowns, all at 7.87 yards per carry. Clemson, even having played Georgia Tech and Texas A&M, enters this weekend slotted 13th nationally with 6.49 yards per carry. Given the dynamic ability of Travis Etienne and Lyn-J Dixon, the box score could be pretty busy. Etienne ranks in the top ten in the country in rushing and leads all Power Five running backs with more than 17 carries in yards per attempt at 9.21. Dixon averages over 7.5 yards per carry himself. Defensively, only one team in all of college football has allowed more runs of at least 50 yards than Syracuse; big play after big play on the ground could be on the horizon. While Trevor Lawrence will assuredly make plays downfield and his touchdown-to-interception rate market correction is undoubtedly coming, Saturday could be a day for an already-proficient run game to set the tone for the Tigers and take center stage. After a relatively-modest showing against Texas A&M, Clemson's rushing attack, featuring the premier back in the game, is ready to a return to form and perhaps even more.

2. Rush Defensively, Too -- Having ranked no worse than second in the ACC in sacks over each of the past seven years, Clemson is, somewhat surprisingly, currently eighth in the league with just six sacks. That said, it's very early, the Tigers are replacing an all-time great defensive line quartet and the uber-talented new unit will only make more plays as the season settles in. Given Syracuse's passing game productivity, this weekend would be an ideal time for the pass rush to emerge. Orange quarterback Tommy DeVito can be quite effective through the air and Dino Babers' scheme is one that thrives on spreading the field and getting playmakers out in space. Consistent pressure on the signal caller is the ideal way to slow such an offense. By disrupting timing and hurrying throws, Clemson would increase the likelihood for three-and-outs, turnovers and likely force Syracuse into secondary adjustments. Whether coming from Xavier Thomas, Niles Pinckney, K.J. Henry or situational blitzers, the Tigers need to get after DeVito in an attempt to prevent Syracuse for getting into its comfort zone offensively.   

3. Set the Tone Early -- Given what has transpired in this series the last few years, Clemson is surely hoping for a dominating performance this time around. That message needs to be sent right away. Psychology can play a big role in any football game -- and confidence or doubt right out of the gate can stand as a striking starting point. An initial rush of momentum from the Tigers, who are certainly capable of going on an absolutely overwhelming run, would likely prove too much for this Syracuse team or any. Clemson, as is well-documented, has won every single game since its close win over the Orange last September by at least 20 points. Should the Tigers take control in the first quarter, that trend will be in line to continue. On the road, playing an opponent that believes, and one eager for a bounce-back performance after struggling the week prior, Clemson doesn't want to let Syracuse gain any traction. The outcome of this ACC Atlantic Division showdown may be very much be determined on the game's first few possessions. Expect the Tigers, even fresh off a dominating performance over Texas A&M, to come out with a chip on their shoulder.

Keys for Syracuse

1. Win at the Point of Attack Defensively -- After a disappointing performance up front against Maryland, with the defensive ultimately allowing the aforementioned 354 yards and six touchdowns rushing, Syracuse will simply have to play better at the line of scrimmage against Clemson. The Orange rank 97th nationally in rushing defense, which is quite concerning with Travis Etienne and company coming to town. If Etienne, who averages over nine yards per carry, gets going, it will likely be a long night. Simply put, the Syracuse front must hold its own. Tackles Josh Black, who played very well in week one, and Kenneth Ruff, will need to set the tone. Though known more for their edge rushing prowess, defensive ends Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson will be looked to to make plays in run defense as well. Those two getting pressure on Trevor Lawrence will, of course, be critical, but the play of Coleman and Robinson in terms of slowing Etienne will also be very important. Leading tackler Lakiem Williams will probably have a busy day in the middle of the field; fundamentals for he and the Orange linebackers will be key. Defenders cannot miss tackles versus these Tigers.         

2. Be Special on Special Teams -- Syracuse has the premier special teams unit in all of college football. It's there the Orange need to dominate. Whether it's the reigning Lou Groza Award winner at kicker Andre Szmyt, punter Sterling Hofrichter or return specialist Sean Riley, Syracuse must maximize their opportunities in the often-overlooked third facet of the game. From field position to the possibility of a momentum-swinging play like a long return or blocked kick, this is one area of a matchup with the defending national champions where the Orange can and need to thrive. Szmyt made three field goals, including a 51-yarder, at Clemson last season. Riley, who is currently averaging 14 yards per punt return and ranked second in the entire country with a 16.4-yard rate a year ago, could be a major x-factor. Hofrichter's production will also be especially-critical. Given how historically great the Tigers are offensively, long boots from him will be an absolute must. Playing in front of a rowdy Saturday night home crowd, if Hofrichter could pin Clemson deep a few times, it could prove to be one of the quiet aspects of a close, competitive game.     

3. Play With Nothing to Lose -- The top-ranked team in the country is coming to the Carrier Dome to face a Syracuse team that, after last week, many have assumed won't have much to offer. Take advantage of those circumstances. This is a good football team, one that should have a chip on its shoulder and be excited about the opportunity in front of them. Go for it. Dino Babers is one of the game's best coaches; expect him to intertwine even more creativity and risk-taking into his gameplan in attempt to energize his home base and put as much pressure as possible on Clemson. Don't be surprised to see the Orange possibly go for it on fourth down a few times, utilize some trick plays or even a fake on special teams. In some ways, last week's loss at Maryland takes some of the national pressure off Syracuse, while the all-important ACC implications still very much remain. The Orange should play with aggressiveness, energy and have fun. They need to throw everything they have at the defending national champions. 

Position Advantages

Quarterback: Clemson --  Trevor Lawrence hasn't yet been at his best yet, but is clearly one of the top passing talents we have seen in all of college football in recent years. He is poised for a signature performance at some point in the near future. For what it's worth, reserve Chase Brice showed his value in this game a year ago.

Running Back: Clemson -- The streak Travis Etienne is on is truly historic. For his career, Etienne is averaging just under eight yards per carry for 2,682 yards with 40 touchdowns. He is already an all-time great. Lyn-J Dixon is averaging over 7.5 yards per carry as Clemson's home run second option.

Pass-Catchers: Clemson -- Only Alabama can boast the same perimeter depth at Clemson, with Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and now Amari Rodgers remarkably back in the rotation from injury. In addition to Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, the Tigers can spread the field with multiple future pros out wide.  

Offensive Line: Clemson -- A somewhat-underappreciated front five continues to help key Clemson's dominance. Simply put, this unit is the starting point for all of the highlights and production. Evan Adams is a big-time guard for Syracuse.

Defensive Line: Clemson -- Even still, few teams in the country can match the sheer talent that Clemson has along the front four. Tackle Nyles Pinckney is a leader at the line of scrimmage and Xavier Thomas is a stud off the edge. Make no mistake about it though, Syracuse has a star tandem at end in Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson.

Linebackers: Clemson -- Isaiah Simmons is one of the nation's best middle-of-the-field defenders and can do it all. He is an absolute catalyst in Clemson's scheme and plays sideline-to-sideline in both rush and pass defense. Lakiem Williams has been productive for Syracuse.

Secondary: Clemson -- With nine interceptions in his last 15 games, Syracuse safety Andre Cisco might be the best defensive back in this game. That said, Clemson's depth and balance is impressive. A.J. Terrell is a top cover corner and K'Von Wallace and Tanner Muse are a good tandem at safety.

Special Teams: Syracuse -- There are good special teams units, then there are elite special teams units like what Syracuse has. Kicker Andre Szmyt, punter Sterling Hofricher and return specialist Sean Riley are proven difference-makers. Should the Orange pull off the upset, this could prove to be the reason why.

Coaching: Clemson -- The coaching matchup, Dabo vs Dino, is a good one as both men are highly regarded. Swinney is on top of the college football world right now. Notably, the defense of Clemson coordinator Brent Venables has given up more than 16 points just once in the last 12 games.       

Intangibles: Syracuse -- Homefield advantage still helps and the Carrier Dome at night should be rocking. All of the pressure, here, is on Clemson; granted, that spotlight is one the Tigers continue to embrace and handle with ease. In addition to stepping onto the big stage each week, Clemson, winners of 17 straight, has to continue to defy the mathematical odds.

Players to Watch

Clemson: Travis Etienne, RB -- Etienne is the best running back in the country and, unless Syracuse has a big defensive turnaround after its struggles in rush defense against Maryland, he is poised for big-time production. Expect Etienne to get back after it following a rare pedestrian performance in the Tigers' win over Texas A&M.   

Syracuse: Sean Riley, WR/RS -- On offense or on special teams, Riley can impact a game a number of different ways. He will touch the football as a receiver, a punt returner, a kick returner and maybe even as a rusher. Riley, who caught a touchdown pass in the Orange's loss Maryland, will need a signature showing.

Final Thoughts

After last week, and behind the enthusiasm of a raucous home crowd, Syracuse should come out of the tunnel in an all-out sprint. The question is how long can that sustain the Orange? The motivation is there for both teams, as Clemson, which has heard about this pairing as a potential upset since the day the schedule was announced, wants to win convincingly given what transpired the past two meetings. Syracuse makes a push, but Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne and the too-talented Tigers eventually overwhelm the homestanding Orange with a flurry of big plays on both sides of the football. Clemson -- 38, Syracuse -- 17

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports