Football Preview: Syracuse at Clemson

Clemson

CLEMSON, S.C. (WSPA) – Clemson hangs onto its No. 1 ranking as it brings two of college football’s top Heisman contenders into a matchup with 1-4 Syracuse on Saturday.

Clemson

The Tigers may have enjoyed a favorable schedule to start the 2020 season, but nonetheless they are 5-0 and playing nearly flawless football through the first several weeks. Not to mention a 42-17 win over No. 7 ranked further separated them from the rest of the pack. 

Travis Etienne and Trevor Lawrence are among the favorites to win the coveted Heisman trophy, with the latter currently claiming top odds. Lawrence has lived up to the billing as he’s on pace to post career highs  in nearly every meaningful category. He’s been more efficient than ever, completing 73% of his passes with a 15:1 touchdown to interception ratio. 

Etienne now has 710 yards from scrimmage and six total touchdowns on the season. He’s been an integral part of the offense in both phases, averaging 6.5 yards per rush while tallying over 14 yards per reception. And although Lawrence has four scores on the ground he hasn’t been much of a factor in the run game. Etienne has been the every down, work-horse back, with guys like Rencher, Dixon, and Mellusi spelling time when needed.  Lawrence and Swinney explain what makes the senior running back so impactful below:

Brent Venables has once again produced one of the best defenses in the country. Through five games, the Tigers are allowing just 103.7 yards passing per game and 96.4 yards rushing. The passing stats may be a bit skewed given their opponents’ run-heavy approaches, and those numbers are sure to rise as the season continues, but still they have produced consistent results. And the pass rush is seemingly improving each week. Myles Murphy has been a force on the line, leading the team with 3.5 sacks. And as a team Clemson has recorded 22 sacks, the second-most in college football. Baylon Spector has been spectacular as well, especially against the run. And the defense has forced multiple turnovers in each of the last three games making it nine total this season. In the secondary, Nolan Turner has been a difference maker and leads the team with two interceptions. And the defensive backs, as are prone to do in a Venables defense, are very present in the run game. They’ve been a formidable bunch this year. 

Syracuse

The Orange have displayed a very solid defense, but a struggling offense so far in 2020. Injuries have certainly played a part in that, with offensive linemen going down as well as their quarterback Tommy DeVito among other skill players. It’s been a tough road for the 1-4 squad. 

Senior quarterback Rex Culpepper (#17) got his first start of the season last week against Liberty, and had some good and bad moments throughout. He completed just 47.5% of his passes (40 attempts) for three touchdowns and one interception. He showed some good arm strength on a couple of the touchdowns, but his inaccuracy plagued the team far too often. Culpepper is largely a pocket passer, so the Clemson pass rush will have their opportunities. 

Leading rusher Sean Tucker (#34), a true freshman, was thrust into the starting lineup early on this season due to injuries, and he’s done a pretty good job taking over the reigns. Tucker has two one-hundred yard games under his belt already with his only two scores coming against Georgia Tech in late September. A track star in high school, Tucker has the burst to make defenses pay when he gets into the open field. But the problem for the Orange has been that they’ve had to get away from the run due to falling behind in games. Their 81.4 average rushing yards per game is fourth-worst in college football. 

Junior wideout Taj Harris (#3) is by far their top receiving threat. AT 6’2”, Harris is their red zone “go-to”, and their big play threat as he has the speed to burn defenders. He averages over 16 yards per catch, and has a career-best four touchdowns already this season. Look for the Tigers to key in on him throughout the game. 

Overall, though, their offense has struggled in the red zone. They have just eleven red zone trips this season, but have converted those into points on just six occasions. Their 54.5% red zone scoring percentage is fourth-worst in the FBS. And they’re converting just 22% of their third downs. Situational football has been a problem for Syracuse. 

Their defense has been the bright spot for the team, particularly in one glaring category: turnovers. The Orange have forced a whopping 16 turnovers (8 interceptions, 8 fumbles) this season, good for best in the FBS by a large margin. They’ve been extremely opportunistic. A defense that creates turnovers at the rate Syracuse has can help alleviate the shortcomings of the offense. Their red zone defense has been solid, as well. They’ve allowed opponents to convert those trips into points at a 73% rate, 13th in the FBS. 

But the biggest weakness of this unit, and it’s a big one, is the run defense. They’re allowing over 250 yards rushing per game, among the worst in college football. Teams have been able to consistently move down the field and control the time of possession given their success on the ground. And their DB’s lack the elite speed necessary to chase down backs in the open field. And a matchup against one of the best running backs in the country coming up doesn’t bode well for the Orange.  Hear what Head Coach Dabo Swinney and Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables had to say about the Orange below:

Matchup

The Orange have obviously been prolific at forcing turnovers, so if they manage to snag one or two in this contest they may be able to help mask some issues. But overall, Clemson’s prolific offense is set up for a huge day on Saturday, and Etienne has a prime opportunity to put up some gaudy numbers. 

With Culpepper being a pocket passer, Clemson’s pass rush should be able to put pressure on the QB consistently. They should be able to build on their high sack totals in this one. And while the Orange have a quality freshman at running back, the Tigers’ elite run defense will likely force Syracuse to abandon it sooner rather than later. 

As 46-point favorites, the Tigers should come away with an unblemished record through six games. 

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