‘Cuse Countdown Breaks Down Syracuse’s Season Open
After a disappointing 4-8 season, Dino Babers and the Syracuse Orange are looking to start 2018 out with a road victory against Western Michigan. What do the Orange need to do to get the job done and will they pull it off? The ‘Cuse Countdown analysts have everything you need to know.
Key to the Game: Figure out the Second Level
After all the talk in the preseason about Syracuse using a 4-2-5 defense with Antwan Cordy at nickelback, Dino Babers’ first depth chart is listed as a 4-3, typical to what SU used in the past. In order for this defense to run at its highest level, it will need to fill a big hole created from graduation. After losing one of the most dynamic linebacker duos in Orange history in Zaire Franklin and Paris Bennett, Syracuse needs defensive leadership at the linebacker position. Taking over at linebacker are three veterans in Kielan Whitner, Andrew Armstrong and Ryan Guthrie, but none of those three have significant starting experience. Western Michigan will counter Syracuse with two powerful and explosive backs in Levante Bellamy and Jamauri Bogan. If SU wants to have any success at stopping the Broncos from running the ball, it has to have at least one linebacker step up and take charge.
Prediction: Syracuse 35-28
Going on the road at a MAC school can be a tough environment, but luckily Dino Babers has some experience coaching in those environments. Both teams will be feeling each other out for a while in the first half, but Eric Dungey, Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal should be able to move the ball against an inexperienced Broncos front seven. Come the second half, this game will become a shootout, but expect the Orange to scrape by with the W.
Key to the Game: Come Out Strong
The question looming over Syracuse this season is whether the Orange will finally make a bowl game under Head Coach Dino Babers. The road to the magic number of six wins begins in Kalamazoo. Syracuse needs to come out strong on offense. The ‘Cuse has a solid returning offensive line to protect a revitalized Eric Dungey. SU is returning all 5 Offensive linemen for the first time since 1989. It’s also an overall larger group with players averaging 6-foot-5, 295 pounds. With better protection in the pocket, Dungey can showcase his dauntless playing style. In addition, in the Dino Babers era, SU has been able to start their season quickly. In Babers’ debut in 2016 against Colgate, Syracuse put up 20 points in the first half. That got even better in year two of “Orange is the New Fast” with SU dropping 31 points on Central Connecticut State in the first thirty minutes of the 2017 season.
Prediction: Syracuse 34-27
While Syracuse is the favorite, the Orange need to be wary of a supposed “underdog” team. Western Michigan has some Orange blood on its bench. Cornerback Juwan Dowels joined the Broncos as a graduate transfer and Tim Lester, formerly an SU assistant coach, is the Broncos offensive head coach. Last year, former head coach Scott Shafer upset Syracuse in week two as head coach of Middle Tennessee. The same could happen this week if Syracuse isn’t strong right off the bat. A healthy Eric Dungey along with dynamic breakout receivers and offensive linemen will help prevent an early season upset and give Syracuse a confidence boost for the season ahead.
Key to the Game: No Disasters
The release of this year’s pre-season depth chart came with a surprise that had nothing to do with who was starting and who wasn’t. Syracuse will play nickel defense at times this season. Subtract a linebacker and add a defensive back, and you get a 4-2-5 nickel defense. The change was made due to the departure of linebackers Zaire Franklin, Paris Bennett and Jonathan Thomas. Defensive coordinator Brian Ward doesn’t feel he has three linebackers capable of starting. While the week one depth chart brought Syracuse back to a 4-3 defense, you can expect a fluid swap to that nickel defense throughout the opener. So SU’s defense will have new mechanics. If there’s going to be a learning curve, we’re about to find out. The Orange need to avoid disastrous missed assignments against Western Michigan on Friday.
Prediction: Syracuse 43-33
This may be the first game, but it won’t be the last in which Syracuse will need 40 points out of its offense in order to win. It’s hard to find tangible areas of improvement out of a defensive unit that ranked last in the ACC with 32.2 points allowed per game. But Eric Dungey will have all day to throw against a green Broncos defensive line. Big day through the air for Dungey in an Orange victory.
Key to the Game: Dominate on the Ground
SU’s passing offense could use some time to get to top form with all the turnover in the receiving corps, so Dontae Strickland, Moe Neal and the scrambling Eric Dungey need to take pressure off the receivers by making plays on the ground. Western Michigan’s defense was susceptible to big plays in the run game last year, so the Orange need to establish an effective rushing attack early. If they can do that, they can put up points, control the tempo of the game, set up play action, and silence the hometown crowd.
Prediction: Western Michigan 28-17
The Orange lost a lot of production from last year’s team, including more than 2000 yards of receiving and 100-plus tackles, so things won’t be smooth on either side of the ball from the get-go. Eric Dungey needs more time to get this passing attack up to top-speed and the linebackers are tasked with replacing two of SU’s best defenders in recent years. The Broncos’ attack won’t stun anyone with big plays, but last season, they were one of the more consistent units in the country and should be expected to keep up that production in 2018. These growing pains lead to a slow start from Dino Babers’ unit, and Syracuse will struggle in the late-summer trip to Kalamazoo.
Key to the Game: Stretch the Defense
While some might claim the Syracuse pass game needs the run game to win this game, it is the other way around. The long ball will be key to opening up the run game and securing an Orange victory. SU likely has a good chance through the air. WMU’s best athlete from a year ago, cornerback Sam Beal, is gone to the NFL. Plus, any issue Syracuse’s receiving corp faces due to a lack of experience should only have a minor effect due to an advantage in overall speed and athleticism. Receivers such as Devin Butler and Jamal Custis have shown bursts of talent and comfort in the past when working with Eric Dungey, and that early familiarity may be key to starting up the passing attack.
Prediction: Syracuse 34-21
This game may stay close to start, but expect Syracuse to eventually pull ahead for a comfortable victory. The Western Michigan rushing attack should pose a good challenge for the Orange, however Dino Babers and defensive coordinator Brian Ward have had plenty of time to create a scheme to stop the Broncos. The one dimensional attack may have its moments in this game, but it won’t be enough to beat SU. Who knows if the Orange will once again fall apart by season’s end, but this is the time of the year to enjoy Syracuse football at full force.
Key to the Game: Don’t Buy into the Hype
Syracuse may be favored to win, but if the Orange think it can just waltz into Kalamazoo and come out with an easy victory, think again. Western Michigan shouldn’t be underestimated because they play in the perceived weaker MAC. This is a team that went 13-1 just two years ago and still has plenty of talent from that 2016 team, including 900-yard rusher Jamauri Bogan. Syracuse faced a similar situation last season when the Orange lost a home game to Middle Tennessee State, another team from a supposedly weaker conference, so the Orange know it’s possible to lose this type of game. SU isn’t a dominant team by any stretch in terms of talent yet and road games are already tough enough. In the Dino Babers era, Syracuse is 2-10 in games away from the Carrier. The Orange shouldn’t believe they’ve already earned or deserve this win; they will have to prove it against a Broncos team seeking a major home win against an ACC opponent one season after being denied a bowl bid despite earning the qualifying six wins.
Prediction: Syracuse 31-24
It’s hard to say a Week 1 game is “must win,” but this is the kind of game that can set the tone for the season. If Syracuse starts with a loss to a supposedly weaker opponent, then expectations and hopes start sinking quickly. If the Orange begin 2018 with a road win, then it can generate momentum towards the magic number of six wins and bowl eligibility. The seniors on this Syracuse team, such as QB Eric Dungey and DB Antwan Cordy, have endured a lot of losing in the past three years and they understand how important this game is if they want to finally have a winning season. Senior leadership will make enough plays to give the Orange a close win to start the season.
Key to the Game: Stop the Run
Western Michigan lost perhaps their two most important players on the offensive side on the ball from a 6-6 2017 campaign. RB Jarvion Franklin perhaps is one of the best MAC players in history, rushing for close to 4,900 yards and 52 touchdowns. Franklin, along with former Broncos All-America left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, both traded in their brown and gold for Steelers black and yellow. Don’t let those losses distract you from a WMU offensive line that returns four starters, with the collective unit standing at an average 6’4” 299 lbs. Those mammoths can push icebergs out of the way, part of the reason why reserve RB LeVante Bellamy rushed for eight yards per carry in 2017. On the Syracuse side, Brian Ward’s defense surrendered 196 rushing yards per game last season, and the linebacking corps in 2018 are raw and unproven following the losses of Parris Bennett and Zaire Franklin. If SU relinquishes consecutive big gains, it could be a long night in Kalamazoo.
Prediction: Western Michigan 31-27
Bellamy and fifth year senior Jamauri Bogan were listed on 2018 Doak Walker Award watch list for a reason. Bogan, the in-between-the-tackles runner is the type of volume back that can wear a defense down, averaging 5.3 yards per carry last season, second on the team in total rushing yards to Franklin with just under 600 on the year. If this happens repeatedly, expect WMU Head Coach Tim Lester to mix in the more explosive back, Bellamy, who is a true home-run-hitter. The Broncos gave the ball to their tailbacks a staggering 47 times a game in 2017. That’s the type of repetition that can neutralize a fast Orange offense, who could struggle playing from behind if Dungey and company suffer a couple three-and-outs early. Outside of Notre Dame, this is SU’s toughest non-conference opponent, and for the ‘Cuse to approach a coveted sixth victory, the team will need to focus matters to its ACC play after this opening weekend matchup.
Key to the Game: Start Fast
For a team containing many new parts, a score on the first possession is paramount to the rest of the game. Last year’s Syracuse team was 4-0 in games it scored first (0-8 when the opponent scored first). If the Orange can put up a score immediately, the rest of the game can come at much greater ease. It is a weight off of Syracuse’s shoulders that frees up the rest of the game. That also would ease the mind of Eric Dungey, who is losing his top two receivers for the second year in a row. A quick score will build the confidence up of the offense and could lead to a season’s worth of confidence to carry throughout 2018.
Prediction: Syracuse 23-17
It will not be the prettiest game Syracuse has played, but Eric Dungey’s veteran leadership will get the job done. His experience will help pick up the slack of some of the newer offensive pieces, and the fast-paced Orange offense will prove to be a little too much for a tough Western Michigan. Pair that with a strong defensive performance out of a healthy Orange defense, and Syracuse gets off to a 1-0 start.