No. 1 Clemson has its first road test of the season on Saturday as the Tigers face Syracuse in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y. Here are our top five questions heading into the game:
Can Clemson’s starting QB stay healthy?
Clemson’s starting quarterback has been injured against the Orange in the past three meetings between these two teams, with Deshaun Watson going down in 2016, Kelly Bryant in 2017 and Trevor Lawrence last year. The 2016 game was still an easy Clemson victory, but the Orange upset Clemson in 2017 and nearly did so again last year, with the Tigers needing a late rally to pull out a win.
It seems that it’s just a coincidence Clemson’s starting QB has been knocked out of the game the last three years, and there’s no indication that the Orange are purposely trying to knock out the quarterback as all of the hits were clean. Still, it’s weird that it’s happened three straight years. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney was asked what Syracuse has done to give the Tigers problems other than knocking out the starting quarterback and responded, “Knocked our quarterback out the past two games. I don’t know what else to say.”
Can the Tigers block Syracuse?
One reason Syracuse has knocked Clemson’s quarterbacks out of the game the past three years is because they’ve gotten a lot of hits on them. The Orange recorded four sacks against the Tigers each of the past two years. Clemson allowed 17 sacks all of last year in 15 games, with nearly 25 percent of those coming against Syracuse.
The Orange have a pair of good defensive ends in Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman that will challenge Clemson’s offensive line.
“Defensively two All-American ends that are gonna play on Sunday, no doubt about it,” Swinney said.
Will Syracuse use lots of tempo?
The Orange haven’t just had success defensively against Clemson, Syracuse has also had more success than most against Brent Venables’ defense. The tempo Syracuse uses has been a part of what has given Clemson fits. Syracuse put up 440 yards of offense against Clemson two years ago, the second-most the Tigers allowed the entire 2017 season.
When Syracuse goes fast it keeps Venables from getting too creative defensively because his unit has to hurry and line up. Swinney said this week Syracuse has been going slower in 2019 than in the past, but they could go hurry-up more against the Tigers.
“They’ve had some weapons. Been physical in the trenches. Played with great effort and believe, all things instilled by Dino Babers,” Swinney said. “Two years ago, we also couldn’t cover them. They either made the play or we pass interfered. All game. It was awful. And our offense couldn’t help our defense out because we were dysfunctional with our quarterback out.”
Is Syracuse really as bad as it was against Maryland?
The Clemson-Syracuse game was supposed to be a big time top 25 showdown. Instead, the Orange were absolutely embarrassed last week against Maryland. Syracuse gave up 650 yards of offense and 63 points against the Terps, and its linebackers really struggled in the game.
Swinney expects to see a different Syracuse team this week.
“I was pretty surprised, but I’ve been in games like that... Maryland gets a couple big plays and momentum... just got away from them. By the time they started moving the ball, the score was out of control,” Swinney said. “So by then everything is different. Maryland is better than people thought, and Syracuse was probably not as prepared as they wanted to be. So you just throw it out the window. They’re a lot better football team than they played last week.”
Can Trevor Lawrence put together a complete game?
The Heisman favorite hasn’t played like it the first couple of weeks of the year. Lawrence has two touchdowns and three interceptions through two games. He has made some poor decisions and has also just missed some throws, but it’s not something Lawrence or the Clemson coaching staff is worried about.
After Syracuse’s struggles defensively last week and with the game being played in perfect conditions in a dome, Lawrence could be ready to explode against the Orange.
“Trevor’s going to be Trevor. I don’t think that the outside noise influences him,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “It’s still early in the season. We’re going to put more on his plate as we go and give him more opportunities to drive the ball down the field.”
Prediction: Swinney started off team meetings this week playing highlights of the 2017 loss. The Tigers are highly motivated after the way the last two years played out, and Clemson should have no problem scoring early and often. Orange quarterback Tommy DeVito is also a step down from Eric Dungey.
Pick: Clemson 52, Syracuse 13