7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Clemson -23.5, Over/Under: 57.5
A subtle, yet potentially seismic ACC Clash is on tap tonight at the Carrier Dome, as the reigning National Champion Clemson Tigers travel to Syracuse to battle the Orange in a meeting that posts a potentially dramatic pitfall for the champs. Nearly halfway through their National Title Defense and Second-Ranked Clemson (6-0, 4-0 in ACC) has passed every test; they gutted out a defensive slugfest with Auburn (14-6), before going on the road and slaying both Louisville (47-21) and Virginia Tech (31-17) on the road with relative ease en route to a perfect 6-0 start. Given the struggles of Florida State, one would have to believe that the Tigers would at this point face little resistance in returning to the Conference Championship Game, where they would in all likelihood be favored over whomever they’re pitted against. But then last Saturday’s meeting with Wake Forest happened, potentially throwing a rather sizeable curveball their way in the form of Starting Quarterback Kelly Bryant departing the field of play with a sprained ankle. The Freshman has yet to practice this week, and has been labeled by Dabo Swinney as a Game-Time Decision, which changes the narrative quite a bit for the visiting Tigers, who go from trying to put up the requisite style points against a weaker opponent, to simply surviving the trip with an unblemished record. If in fact Bryant can’t take the field, then it’s probably going to be another Freshman, Hunter Johnson, who will be steering the Offense for Swinney and his charges. As you can imagine, the Frosh out of Brownsburg, Indiana has featured sparingly this season, completing 11-of-12 passes for eighty-one Yards and a Touchdown, including a brief 5-for-5, 41-Yard, one Touchdown performance in the 28-14 victory over the Demon Deacons. It should be an interesting event as Clemson bring the nation’s longest active winning streak (eleven), as well it’s longest active road winning streak (thirteen) into the Carrier Dome, with their hopes of maintaining their course to a third consecutive College Football Playoff appearance in the hands of a young Quarterback that has just a dozen passes under his belt. Needless to say, it would be a completely different story altogether with Bryant taking snaps from Center, for No. 2 has oftentimes looked like the man he replaced, Deshaun Watson, when making plays for the Tigers. In six starts, he has completed 67.3% of his Attempts for an average of 209.8 Yards per Game on 7.9 Yards per Attempt, with four Touchdowns and four Interceptions, but has proven particularly deadly with his feet, rushing for 401 Yards and seven more scores on ninety-one Carries. Thankfully, whomever is starting at Quarterback shouldn’t have to expect to put up too many points, for their compatriots on Defense are REALLY GOOD. Of course, that’s an understatement when you’re allowing a paltry 11.3 Points per Game (5th Overall) on 264.3 Total Yards, including 165.5 against the pass and another 98.8 versus the run. Just look what these guys did to reigning Heisman Lamar Jackson in the drubbing of Louisville for further proof of their dominance; Clemson stonewalled the explosive Jackson throughout the night, limiting him to just 21-of-42 Passing (50.0%), sacking him five times and picking him off once, while keeping him contained in the Pocket with sixty-four Yards on seventeen Carries (3.8 Y/C). The Defensive Line is littered with future Pros, with the likes of Austin Bryant (29 TKL, 11.0 TFL, 5.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT), Dexter Lawrence (15 TKL 1.5 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 FF), Christian Wilkins (25 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 3.0 SK), and Clelin Ferrell (21 TKL, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 SK, 1 FF) combining for eighteen Tackles for Loss and eleven Sacks, which we’re fairly certain is more than some FBS teams out there. Though they probably didn’t expect to be needed so desperately to do so against the likes of Syracuse, these guys are going to have to buckle down and play to their potential in order to keep their unbeaten march alive.
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Meanwhile, what do you have for us, Syracuse (3-3, 1-1 in ACC)? Do you have it in you to pull off what would have to be the biggest upset of the College Football Season (all apologies to Iowa State)? You’ll have the benefit of playing in front of a home crowd (for what that’s worth), on a nationally televised platform, against the unbeaten defending National Champions, who just so happen to be ranked Second in the AP Poll. Oh, and they’ll be traveling your way on a short week, with a typically explosive Offense potentially hamstrung by either an ailing Quarterback, or by a neophyte Freshman Backup. Hell, there’s even a precedent for such an upset, for this program has actually defeated a National Champion the season after hoisting said trophy on two occasions, the first being back Penn State back in 1988, and the second being Michigan in 1998. Apparently every ten years these guys are good for knocking off a reigning National Champion. Granted, we realize it’s been much longer than ten years since they last slayed a giant of this magnitude, but it appears that the planets and moon are in alignment for Dino Babers and his charges, who could really use a signature victory midway through his second season in charge of the Orange. Don’t let our candor fool you, folks, for Babers is doing very good work in upstate New York, for this team is much better than their record would suggest. They very much have the feel of a young team that is on the verge of turning the corner, after having lost many close games to more higher-profile programs, competing valiantly at LSU (26-35) and at North Carolina State (25-33) in consecutive weeks. They were finally able to put one in the win column last Saturday at home against Pittsburgh, thwarting a late rally from the Panthers to secure a 27-24 victory. The Offense was humming throughout the contest, as the home side racked up a whopping 500 Yards of Total Offense, including 135 Rushing Yards on forty-two Carries, and another 365 through the air, courtesy of Eric Dungey who completed 33-of-49 Attempts, averaging 7.4 Yards per Pass, with three Touchdowns to his credit, while rushing for another forty-eight Yards on a dozen Carries. Dungey did a solid job of spreading the ball around, with seven different players catching a pass, with the likes of Ravian Pierce (9 REC, 99 YDS) and Steve Ishmael (5 REC, 97 YDS, 1 TD) leading the way. Than again, Syracuse has been productive on this side of the ball thus far, averaging 32.0 Points (53rd Overall) on 466.8 Total Yards per Game, including 325.0 through the air and another 141.8 on the ground. The aforementioned Dungey looks settled as the team’s starter after splitting reps a year ago, completing 64.1% of his Attempts for an average of 300.3 Yards per Game on 6.9 Yards per Attempt, with nine Touchdowns compared to four Interceptions. However, the Junior has really impressed with his ability to make plays with his legs, already eclipsing his rushing production from 2016 in four fewer appearances, totaling 325 Yards and eight scores on just eighty Carries, which also leads the team, by the way. Look for him to connect with Ishmael, who has been one of the more slept-on receiving threats in the ACC for a while; the Senior is thriving with Dungey pulling the trigger, reeling in career-highs in Receptions (Fifty-Six) and Yards (729) to go with three Touchdowns in six games. The Orange MUST maintain balance in order to keep things close with the Tigers, for in each of their defeats to LSU (Twenty-Seven Carries for Seventy-Six Yards) and North Carolina State (Thirty Carries for Fifty-Nine Yards) they had to abandon the run after falling behind, which really cut their attack off at their knees. And with ALL that said, there are also a number of things working against this team as well, such as going 1-15 against ranked teams since they joined the Atlantic Coast Conference back in 2013, and generally struggling to matchup with Clemson during that period, losing four straight meetings by an average margin of 27.3 Points per Game. The Tigers were ranked in all four matchups, standing as members of the Top-Three during three of them, including last year’s meeting, a 54-0 debacle at Clemson, in which they were ranked third. Stranger things have happened, particularly in these weird weeknight primetime games, but the pieces are in place for Friday Night to be a memorable one, it just remains to be seen whether or not it will actually come to fruition.