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College Football Preview 2019: 16. Syracuse Orange

16. Syracuse Orange

Last season's breakthrough was just the beginning; the Orange retain enough to once again reach double-digit victories

Andre Cisco
Offense: For the first time since he arrived in upstate New York, head coach Dino Babers will be breaking in a new quarterback. Eric Dungey has been his guy the last three seasons as the heart and soul of this Orange team and his 2,868 passing yards a season ago made him SU's all-time leading passer. It appears as though Babers and this staff will turn to sophomore Tommy DeVito to take over the reigns of the offense.

DeVito took advantage of Dungey's ill health towards the middle of the 2018 season to lead the comeback victory against UNC and he finished the year with 525 yards. He is not the hard-nosed runner that Dungey was, but that could end up working better for this offense. Instead, he'll be more of a traditional, dropback passer that has the arm to do damage in this wide-open offense. There almost certainly will be a slight drop-off in production early on, but most people who have seen DeVito believe he'll figure things out in a timely manner.

With the ground game likely to lean less on Dungey there is a good chance Syracuse produces their first 1,000 yard back in years. Senior Moe Neal is back after being their No. 1 guy in 2018, managing 869 yards and five scores. Neal is not a flashy runner but is a well-built, shifty runner that is a nice fit in this offense. The depth behind Neal is also very impressive, as sophomore Jarveon Howard also returns and Oklahoma transfer Abdul Adams arrives. Howard had seven touchdowns in 2018 and is a short yardage specialist, while Adams is a big play threat who averaged a whopping 9.9 yards per carry for OU in 2017. Neal may not be elite, but the depth of this group of backs makes this one of the premier RB units in the ACC.

DeVito will have to find a new No. 1 target in the passing game following the graduation of Jamal Custis, who paced all SU receivers with 906 yards. The good news is that there is an abundance of options, with the headliners being senior Sean Riley and sophomore Taj Harris. Riley is just 5'8" but works extremely well as a reliable, move-the-chains guy this type of offense needs. Meanwhile, Harris had the most receiving yards by a true freshman in school history and is a dynamic deep threat. He could be the real breakout guy on an offense full of potential breakthroughs. Add in Michigan State transfer Trishton Jackson, and I envision this group once again having a superb season.

While most of the attention at schools with explosive offenses is reserved for their skill positions, offensive lines may a much larger role than most give them credit for. That certainly is the case at Syracuse, where their O-Line was crucial to their success last fall. Babers and the staff have to feel good about the line once again, as 98 career starts are returning. That includes junior Airon Servais, who can play center or either tackle spot, as well as South Alabama transfer Ryan Alexander, a likely starter at right tackle. The goal will be to keep DeVito upright more than Dungey was, which should be easier with a less-mobile QB.

Babers is well respected around college football for his offensive mind and he has quickly built an offense with the Orange that is incredibly consistent. It is a group that can plug in pieces and keep on humming, which they'll do at a few spots in 2019. If DeVito is able to adjust to the starting job quickly, the 40.2 PPG in '18 is not completely realistic.

Defense: Offense is likely always going to rule the day in Syracuse under Babers, but this defense has the chance to be one of the most underrated in the country in 2019. They have a strong front seven that knows how to get after opposing quarterbacks, and the secondary has every major contributor back.

Veteran defensive ends Alton Robinson & Kendall Coleman both had ten sacks last fall and are both back for the Orange. Neither came to the school with much fanfare, but they've developed into quick, twitchy pass rushers that are nearly impossible to stay in front of. Robinson has attracted a ton of NFL buzz and scouts will be heading to the Carrier Dome often to get more looks at him. Up the middle, senior McKinley Williams is a run stopper. He'll have to play an even larger role with three-year starter Chris Slayton gone at one D-Tackle spot, but the experienced Williams has proven he can play key snaps. It is unclear right now who will replace Slayton in the starting lineup, with a host of players ready to compete in fall camp.

Even though the linebacker corps lost a bunch heading into 2018, the unit proved to be a real strength for this Orange team, as Ryan Guthrie & Kielan Whitner combined for 207 total tackles. Unfortunately, SU will have to reload as both graduated over the off-season. Senior Andrew Armstrong has ample experience and should be able to slide into a starting spot without much difficulty. He had 45 tackles and picked off a pass last year and will play at weakside outside 'backer. Middle linebacker is a bigger question at this point, with senior Lakiem Williams competing with sophomore Juan Wallace for snaps. Don't be surprised if newcomer Mikel Jones, the gem of this year's recruiting class, comes in and competes for snaps right away at nickelback. 

Syracuse saw their pass defense improve wildly in 2018, thanks to more experience and the play of Andre Cisco, who tied for the FBS lead with seven interceptions. Things could get even better this fall, as all four starters are returning to the defensive backfield, including Cisco. The cornerback position will likely trot out two senior starters in Scoop Bradshaw & Christopher Frederick. Fredrick proved to be quite the playmaker himself, picking off three passes. It will be hard to replicate last year's production, but expect Cisco to be one of the top defensive backs in the ACC once more in 2019. He did all that a year ago despite being a true frosh and only starting 11 of their 13 games. Strong safety is going to be manned by senior Evan Foster, the top returning tackler on this team\, with 86 in '18. Depth is somewhat of a concern, but bringing in talent like true freshman Cornelius Nunn will certainly help with that.

The Orange proved they could defend the pass and get after the QB last season, and the pieces that are back will do much the same in 2019. While the linebacker situation isn't as favorable as last fall, that stacked D-Line and secondary should be able to make up for it. With so much talent and experience still in the fold, this should be the best defense in the Babers era.

Special Teams: After some early growing pains, Andre Szmyt turned it on in 2018, notching 30 of 34 field goals en route to All-American honors and the Lou Groza Award for best kicker in the country. He'll be joined by senior Sterling Hofrichter, who earned All-ACC honors as a punter, with 67 punts for an average of 42.9 yards. With those two returning, Syracuse boasts perhaps the best special teams unit in the nation.

Bottom Line: After two straight 4-8 campaigns to open his tenure, Dino Babers had his long awaited breakthrough last season, as Syracuse won ten games and came within a hair of upsetting National Champion Clemson on the road. Don't expect the momentum to stop there, as the Orange have loaded up on some real talent on both sides of the ball the last few years. The offense should look different this season but still be highly productive, while the defense and special teams have a chance to be at the top of the conference. Just as promising as the actual on-field talent is a schedule that is among the easiest in the Power Five. The Orange will get their new division rival, Clemson, at home in the Carrier Dome where they were able to pull off the upset in 2017. Outside of that, the Orange get a breezy non-conference slate and a manageable road schedule, although trips to Florida State and NC State will be precarious. Could this be the team to finally overpower Clemson and take over the ACC Atlantic? It isn't as crazy as one might think, especially if the Orange can steal one at home. Either way, the schedule sets up in such a way that a New Year's Six Bowl seems like a real possibility.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-2 (6-2 ACC)
Offensive MVP: RB Moe Neal
Defensive MVP: S Andre Cisco
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Taj Harris
Impact Freshman: LB/DB Mikel Jones

Five-Year Trend
2014: 3-9 (1-7 ACC)
2015: 4-8 (2-6 ACC)
2016: 4-8 (2-6 ACC)
2017: 4-8 (2-6 ACC)
2018: 10-3 (6-2 ACC)

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