Virginia Tech hasn't faced off with Syracuse on the football field since 2003 (and hasn't made a trip up to the Carrier Dome since 2002) so it's quite fair to wonder what exactly awaits the Hokies this weekend.
The Orange sit at just 2-4 under new head man Dino Babers, and though have yet to win an ACC game, they boast the nation's leading receiver and punt returner, and a prolific passing offense. To get a little more insight on the renewal of the old Big East rivalry, we turned to John Cassillo, managing editor of the impeccably named SB Nation site Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician (and he was kind enough to return the favor and solicit TKP for some thoughts on the game as well).
AK: After an unexceptional three years under Scott Shafer, the Orange hired former Baylor assistant and Bowling Green head coach Dino Babers to right the ship at Syracuse. What was your take on the Babers hire, and how would you grade his performance midway through year one?
JC: You'd be hard-pressed to find too many folks against the Babers hire considering his success at Bowling Green and Eastern Illinois, and the style of offense he runs. For a team that plays indoors, it makes perfect sense for Syracuse to run something a bit more up-tempo, yet we'd yet to do so until now. Babers is a smart coach and an entertaining interview, and while there have been questions about bits and pieces of the game plan through six games, you can see the clear vision toward a more interesting and competitive on-field product.
I'd say his current grade's incomplete, because things have happened about how we figured at the halfway point. The defense is very bad and the offense has shown a lot of improvement from last year. We'll have to wait until the end of the year to really properly grade his performance in year one. If the offense continues to progress, however, and the defense starts showing signs of understanding the new scheme, there's no reason he can't receive high marks.
AK: Setting aside last week's 28-9 loss to Wake Forest played in the remnants of Hurricane Matthew, sophomore quarterback Eric Dungey has been excellent this fall, averaging nearly 350 yards per game through the air. Who are Dungey's most dangerous weapons, and how do you see the Orange matching up with an athletic Bud Foster defense?
JC: Syracuse has primarily utilized three receivers: Amba Etta-Tawo, Ervin Philips and Steve Ishmael. While Etta-Tawo and Philips have received a lot of headlines for their larger reception totals, Ishmael might be the most physically talented of them all. Ishmael runs intermediate and more complicated routes, which typically take some time to develop. Despite the weather against Wake Forest last week, he was still able to make his presence known. Philips has been able to carve out a niche in the slot (42 catches), while Etta-Tawo's really going to dictate if this offense can make it to the end zone. His 51 receptions for 876 yards and six scores make him one of the country's most dangerous options at wideout, and especially on deep routes.
All of that said, Virginia Tech's defense is clearly designed to shut down pass-first attacks just like this one. The Hokies are the best in the country at preventing big plays, and even if SU can dink-and-dunk down the field with the short passing game, that means going up against the Hokies' red zone D (top-20 in the country as you guys already know). Syracuse's ability to play with pace should be able to help them counteract some of Tech's clear advantage in the secondary. But not sure it's anywhere near enough.
AK: While Babers brought an improved offensive attack to upstate New York, the defense under first-year coordinator Brian Ward has struggled against Power 5 competition. What's the key defensively for the Orange to slow down Jerod Evans and company?
JC: I'd argue we've struggled against FBS competition, since UConn put up season-highs and USF, while a very good team, thrashed us despite being outside of a power conference as well. Brian Ward has us running a coverage-focused Tampa-2, which is a stark difference from our old blitz-heavy scheme. We're also dealing with injuries and a lack of depth both on the line and in the secondary. Plus a ton of inexperience everywhere but linebacker — and even there, they were the heart of the old blitz, and now need to drop back into coverage. The personnel's not a match for what we're doing right now, which leads to quite a few growing pains.
If SU is going to stop Jerod Evans and the Hokies' passing game, they're going to have to keep him in the pocket, while also preventing him from long completions. There's very little chance the Orange are able to do BOTH of these things, mind you, but that's how they'd be able to slow down Virginia Tech's offense. If SU can't generate a pass rush (likely), it may behoove them to drop another man in coverage or as a spy for Evans. If you can't tell, I'm not overly optimistic Syracuse has the ability to stop Tech's offense (though we do actually make stops in the red zone).
AK: While Jim Boeheim has elevated Syracuse basketball to an annual Final Four contender, the football program has been mired in mediocrity since the departure of Paul Pasqualoni in 2004. With just three bowl berths in the past decade, Babers is tasked with rebuilding the program in what many consider to be the tougher of the two ACC divisions. I guess what I'm trying to get at is this: is the Syracuse fan base resigned to the fact that annually contending in the ACC may be overly hopeful, or is there legitimate confidence in Babers being the right man to return Syracuse football to prominence?
JC: There are very few Syracuse fans fooling themselves into contending with Clemson and Florida State in their current forms. That said, the hope would be a 9-3 or so long-term ceiling, with consistent years of 7-5 or 8-4 with a fourth-place finish in the Atlantic. Those things happening would count on some smarter scheduling than we've had of late (we like to punish ourselves for some reason), but it's feasible a few years down the road (we did go 7-6 in Shafer's first season, after all, and he ended up sinking the program). We have a decent amount of faith that Babers is the guy to lead us back. But leading us back probably means he finds a better gig as well, which is fine, because it means he's won games at Syracuse.
AK: Time to put you on the spot: who wins Saturday, and why?
JC: I'm not overly hopeful we win, for many of the reasons state above. Syracuse is improved, and the offense should provide some entertaining moments no matter what happens on the scoreboard. But between offensive line injuries (three of five starters will miss this one) and the defensive issues, it's hard to see an upset for the Orange here. Maybe the teams are close at half, but Tech's defense will force mistakes that put some distance between them and Syracuse by the time the third wraps up. I'll go 48-21 in favor of the Hokies. Not happy about it, but it is what it is.