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UNC Football Opponent Preview: Syracuse, and My Dino Babers Mancrush

Its hard to claim expertise on a team you rarely see, but the Orange should be trending up.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse is a football program that plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They play indoors, in a dome named after a heating and air company, despite said dome not having air conditioning.

Look, I’ve been able to come up with some insightful tidbits on the lead-ins to all of these previews, so you’ll have to cut me some slack here. Syracuse is usually the team that plays in the ESPNU noon slot, unless they’re playing a conference power. If they’re playing a conference power, you tune in when you see on Twitter that they’re keeping it close. When you tune in, they usually fold.

Or, they do something crazy like temporarily give Carolina fans hope in 2016 by taking down #17 Virginia Tech. Or, on a Friday night when you’re doing nothing else, edging #2 Clemson by three points.

Syracuse: they’re anonymous until they’re not. They are porous, unless they’re plucky. And that starts with head man Dino Babers.

Having covered him twice at ACC Media Kickoff, Babers is absolutely delightful. Everything he says is either insightful, informative, or funny. He’s hard not to cheer for.

He’s also 8-16 in two years at the helm in Upstate New York, making 2018 a big year for the Orange. His best team thus far will help him make the most of it (or not).

2017 Season

The Cuse wasn’t ever going to be bowl-bound last year,but a week two home loss to Middle Tennessee confirmed that. After 3 weeks, they sat 2-1...with a trip to LSU and the ACC schedule in front of them. They were plucky at LSU and N.C. State, losing by a combined 17 points, and then beat Pitt and Clemson at home with matching 27-24 scores.

With that momentum, they came close to pulling more upsets against overwhelming talent gaps— an 8-point loss at Miami, then losing by 3 at Florida State (27-24 again!)

Then, without quarterback Eric Dungey down the stretch, everything fell apart. They gave up 64 points to Wake, lost by 46 at Louisville, and at home by 28 to BC.

Just like 2016, September was “meh”, October called for optimism, and November was dreadful. In fact, Syracuse has just one November win in the past four years.

Unfortunately, Carolina travels to the Great White North when Babers’ teams have historically peaked— mid-to-late October.

Series History

The Heels and the Cuse have played exactly four times, and not once since the Orange joined the ACC in 2013. Gotta love the division structure, am I right?

The teams first met in a series in the 1990’s, with Syracuse coming to Chapel Hill and upsetting the #20 Heels 20-9 in the 1995 season opener. That Orange team finished the season ranked #19 and beat Clemson 41-0 in the Gator Bowl. Funny how weird that looks now.

They met again the following year, and the win against Donovan McNabb’s 9th-ranked Orange is my first Carolina football memory. The Heels drubbed a top-20 Clemson team 45-0 in the opener (so, Clemson lost consecutive games 86-0...what a time to be alive), and came into the marquee matchup ranked #24. Carolina won 27-10, propelling them to a breakout 10-2 campaign under Mack Brown. That Cuse team recovered nicely, tying for the Big East championship with the only blemish a 38-31 loss to co-champion Miami on the last day of the season.

The teams played with...umm...much lower stakes in 2002 and 2003, the pit of the John Bunting and Paul Pasqualoni eras. The Heels won at Syracuse, 30-22, in 2002 as the teams would go on to combine for 7 wins. Syracuse got revenge in Chapel Hill the following year, winning 49-47 in a sad triple-overtime thriller. The Orange would finish 6-6...and Carolina would finish 2-10. Fun times.

Carolina O vs. Syracuse D

Babers was adamant at ACC Kickoff that the strength of this year’s Syracuse team would be depth in the lines, and I suppose I can buy that. DE Alton Robinson (#94) was impressive as a true freshman, starting 10 games and tallying 5 sacks. Senior DT Chris Slayton (#95) is probably their best defender, as the nose tackle is quick and mighty lean for a 320-pounder.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisiana State
Alton Robinson
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Like the Heels, Virginia Tech, and N.C. State, Syracuse suffered a ton of attrition in the linebacking corps, and will trot out three new starters. According to Phil Steele, two projected starters are seniors, and the other is a junior— a perfect test case of talent vs. experience, as all were very low in recruiting rankings. They lose their top two tacklers from last year, as Paris Bennett and Zaire Franklin combined for 190 tackles, 11 quarterback hurries, and 13 tackles for loss.

In the secondary, they return three juniors who started last year and saw significant action in 2016 as true freshmen. Scoop Bradshaw (#18) led the league’s worst turnover-forcing defense with 6 pass breakups, and Evan Foster (#14) and Christopher Frederick (#3) accounted for half of the teams paltry four interceptions.

This is a defense Carolina should have no issue moving the ball against. Every level of the defense is basically open season, as the line isn’t terribly disruptive, the linebackers aren’t terribly experienced, and the secondary isn’t exactly ballhawking. The running backs should have a field day once they hit the second level, underneath routes will be wide open as the Cuse has been bend-but-don’t-break, and gave up 6.4 yards per play last year— good for 113th in the country.

Syracuse O vs. Carolina D

What you should know about Syracuse: they’re going to attempt to manufacture points by tempo-ing your defense to death. They led the nation in plays per game at almost 86, and Babers and QB Eric Dungey (#12) both alluded to the fact that they want to be faster this year. Good lord.

Tempo has not yet equated to efficiency to the same level of Babers’ Bowling Green offenses, but injuries to Dungey each of the past two seasons played a major role. The Orange finished 95th in yards per play at 5.4, but 23rd in yards per game due to their tempo. In no way will 85 plays and 500 yards reflect badly on the Carolina defense...but 700 yards certainly would.

For the Orange, it starts up front on the offensive line. They return four starters from 2017, and insert a senior at guard in the fifth spot— but have more talented guys pushing for spots. Aaron Servais and Sam Heckel both started all 12 games as freshmen last year, so Babers will favor talent over experience.

He has both in quarterback Eric Dungey. Playing through injury, Dungey completed 60% of his passes for 2,495 yards and 14 touchdowns last year— or significantly worse than a healthier 2016 campaign. He’s also a threat in the running game, as he netted 595 yards and 9 scores with his legs. In the backfield, both Gastonia, N.C. native Moe Neal and junior Dontae Strickland return. You know its a pass-happy attack when the top two running backs only combine for 220 carries...and you know why when you see that they only combined for 970 yards on those attempts.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse
Moe Neal
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Ishmael caught 105 passes for 1347 yards last year, and is gone. Ervin Phillips caught 89 for 904 yards, and is likewise gone. The two combined for almost half of their targets, receptions, and yards, so Dungey will need to find some new favorite targets. Devin C. Butler (#5) led all returning receivers with 33 catches for 327 yards, a pedestrian 9.9 yards per catch. Tight end Ravian Pierce (#6) had 263 yards and 4 scores as a junior. Nykiem Johnson (#82) got a start late in the season, and projects to be one of the breakout guys out wide, and Babers brought in five new receivers in this year’s recruiting class.

They’re going to attack through the air...a lot. If Carolina had played this matchup with last year’s MASH unit, the Heels would’ve had to dive into walk-ons to keep enough bodies on the field. This year, Carolina’s depth on the defensive line should be a HUGE advantage.

This is an Orange team that will eat up yards between the 20’s. If Carolina can force drives to end in field goal attempts instead of touchdowns, their talent and depth should emerge victorious.

Outlook

Babers is assembling ACC-level talent at Syracuse, but I’m not convinced that said talent is yet ready to consistently compete at an ACC level. The Heels’ depth on the defensive line should allow them to be ready if the game is a shootout in the 4th quarter, and the offense should be able to put up consistent yards and points on the Cuse defense.

Carolina 45, Syracuse 37.