‘Cuse Countdown 2018 Football Preview: Strength of Schedule
This article is the fourth in a four part series previewing the Syracuse football team.
Click here to read the preview of the offense.
Click here to read the preview of the defense.
Click here to read about the biggest changes between 2017 and 2018.
‘Cuse Countdown’s preview of Syracuse football concludes with a look at the teams the Orange will take on in 2018. Analysts Karl Moeglein and Sean Scott break down Syracuse’s schedule game-by-game.
The Orange open the season away from home for the first time since 2013 and even that was a neutral site game against Penn State. You have to go all the way back to Syracuse’s 2010 trip to Akron to find a true road contest in week one. Western Michigan is just two years removed from a perfect regular season en route to a Cotton Bowl appearance, and the Orange cannot underestimate the Broncos. While WMU was just 6-6 in 2017, this contest provides an important measuring stick for SU. A loss to Middle Tennessee State last year put an early damper on Syracuse’s 2017 season, and an opening week disappointment could have a negative ripple effect on the entire of 2018.
The mood of this game will be directly affected by the results of week one. If the Orange take care of business in Kalamazoo, FCS opponent Wagner will be a chance to make adjustments and see what some young players can do. Last season, the Seahawks were a paltry 4-7 and lost to the same Central Connecticut State team that Syracuse trampled 50-7. This game becomes more interesting if it follows a loss. The Orange will need to use this game to build confidence before its first big test of the season comes to the Dome in week three.
In Syracuse’s five years in the ACC, one thing has remained constant: the Orange can’t beat the Seminoles. In five tries against FSU in the ACC, Syracuse has not once been able to get the number of the 2013 National Champions. No loss hurt more than 2017. After four years and four defeats by more than two scores, SU was a Cole Murphy field goal away from forcing overtime with the Seminoles down in Doak Campbell Stadium, only for the veteran to miss wide and cost the Orange a chance at inching closer to bowl eligibility. With FSU traveling north, this game represents the Orange’s best chance to steal an early season contest. Willie Taggart is in his first season at the helm after the departure of Jimbo Fisher, and the first road game of his tenure comes against Syracuse. Against a team that returns just 11 starters, this game has the potential to break the skid the Orange is on against its ACC Atlantic foe.
This UConn team is just not that good. There is not a lot of ways to sugar coat it. Outside of Wagner, the Huskies are far and away the worst team on the Orange’s schedule. Last year, UConn was just 3-9, and there is little to indicate that the team will trend up in 2018. The timing of the game may be the most dangerous thing about the matchup for SU. Nuzzled between ACC giants Florida State and Clemson, this game has all the markings of a trap game. The old Big East may be gone, but the bad blood between these teams certainly is not. Fortunately for Syracuse, one of Dino Babers biggest strengths is motivation, and the chance to keep the Huskies in their place should act as the fodder Babers needs to push his team to a win.
Syracuse’s chances of shocking the world twice are slim. It all starts on the defensive line where Clemson owns all four spots on the preseason All-ACC team. Even with an improved offensive line, the Orange will likely to struggle to create any running room against the best front seven in the conference. The trip to Death Valley makes this game even more daunting. The Tigers have lost just once at home in the last four seasons. Syracuse will need their athletic but inexperienced underclassmen like safety Andre Cisco and wide receiver Nykeim Johnson to play beyond their years against the elite talent that Clemson has. Then again, last year SU was given no chance when the number two team in the nation came into the Carrier Dome, and we all know what happened there.
No program is more familiar with the Orange than the Pittsburgh Panthers. The former Big East rivals have played every year since 1955, and Heinz Field has not been kind to Syracuse in recent years. SU has not beat Pitt on its home turf since 2001. The last time the Orange visited the Panthers was in the 2016 season finale, where SU put up 61 points, and it still wasn’t enough to match Pittsburgh’s 76 on that day. Last season, both teams had similar stories. Each team collected one major win (Pitt beat undefeated Miami and Syracuse… well you know that story already), but both failed to reach a bowl game. This year, both teams are looking to turn the corner. Opposite Syracuse’s Eric Dungey is Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett. The sophomore had just one start in 2017, but it could not have gone much better. The New Jersey native was a part of all three Panther touchdowns. His development plays a large part in the optimism surrounding this team. In its last game before the bye week, Syracuse may have its most even match up. With the Orange’s history after the bye week, this game could easily wind up being a must win.
The back half of Syracuse’s 2018 schedule begins with a home game against North Carolina. UNC returns most of its production from a young 2017 team, including its top two quarterbacks, top two running backs and top wide receiver, and that extra year of experience will make this a challenging game for the Orange. However, Syracuse should still have the edge given the home field advantage against a team that managed just a 3-9 record last season. North Carolina has also gotten into more trouble with the NCAA this offseason, meaning this could be another distraction-filled struggle of a season for the Tar Heels. North Carolina has 13 players suspended for parts of this season, including defensive end Tomon Fox, who is scheduled to be suspended for this game with Syracuse. If SU is to have a successful season, it can’t afford to lose to a team continuing to deal with NCAA infractions. That makes this home game for Syracuse likely a must-win in the Orange’s quest to return to a bowl game for the first time in five years.
North Carolina State
North Carolina State marks the second straight home game for Syracuse against a team from North Carolina. The Wolfpack lost a lot of talent from last season’s 9-4 team, including playmaker Jaylen Samuels and first round draft pick Bradley Chubb. North Carolina State returns quarterback Ryan Finley, however, which turns this home game into a toss-up. Finley is an accurate passer who rarely turns the ball over, which could negate any home-field advantage for Syracuse. If NC State has a good start to the season and ends up ranked, that could be good for Syracuse given the Orange’s knack for upsetting top-25 teams at home in each of the past two seasons.
Syracuse doesn’t play very well on the road, but the Demon Deacons are on a similar talent level to the Orange, so this game looks like it could be tight. Wake Forest starts a new quarterback, but returns leading rusher Matt Colburn, who tore apart the Orange defense last season ot the tune of 237 yards on the ground with two touchdowns. This is the kind of game that can tell the story of the 2018 Syracuse season; a win on the road could generate momentum and lead to the first bowl appearance under Head Coach Dino Babers, while a loss could snowball down the stretch into another disappointing season.
Syracuse’s Senior Day welcomes the Louisville Cardinals to the Carrier Dome. It is hard to tell how good or bad Louisville will be this season before seeing them in a few games. The Cardinals lost a large chunk of its production from last season, most notably Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson. While the new starters will have nearly an entire year of experience before coming to Syracuse in early November, the Orange, with the home field advantage and a high-powered offense, has a chance to take advantage of a Louisville defense that lost nine starters from a just-average 2017 squad.
Maybe the most intriguing game in the last half of Syracuse’s schedule is a game against Notre Dame in Yankee Stadium. Initially, Syracuse was supposed to travel to South Bend and play Notre Dame on the road. However, the game was moved to Yankee Stadium and has become a neutral site game. Notre Dame historically is one of the nation’s top teams and that could be the case in 2018 as well, making this an extremely tough test for Syracuse. The Fighting Irish has to replace star running back Josh Adams, but it has two strong returning quarterbacks battling for the starting job this season, and whoever emerges is likely to have a very productive season. Notre Dame also returns 96 percent of its defensive production from a year ago. Syracuse hasn’t fared well in regular season neutral site games, losing its last five games in such instances, including against Notre Dame in 2016 in Metlife Stadium. The good news: the Orange has won its last two games at Yankee Stadium thanks to two Pinstripe Bowl victories. One of those two trends will end as the season nears its conclusion.
Looking at the 2018 Syracuse schedule as a whole, I see a tough path to get to the magical total of 6 wins and bowl eligibility. The Orange may enter its season finale against Boston College needing to win to secure bowl eligibility given this season’s tough competition and a still-improving Syracuse team. However, winning that final game in Chestnut Hill will be a tall order as BC returns quarterback Anthony Brown and its star running back AJ Dillon. Dillon, in particular, rushed for nearly 200 yards against the Orange in the Eagles’ blowout win at the Carrier Dome last season. Despite home field advantage for Boston College, this is a rivalry game, and in rivalry games people often say to throw out the stats, so I see this as yet another toss-up in a season full of them. There is one number that Orange fans may want to hear: Dino Babers is just 2-10 on the road in his two seasons in charge of SU, but one of those wins came in Chestnut Hill.