Syracuse’s football opener is now less than a month away, and that means we’re now in the nitty-gritty of schedule gymnastics. How can SU sneak its way into a bowl? It’s certainly possible, but hinges on a few key factors. Last year, a similar article we wrote nailed some predictions for the ’21 squad.
Ready or not, the Orange are about to set off on their course. If a bowl awaits at the end, it’ll mean the team ticked off at least some of the following conditions.
Garrett Shrader throws for at least 2,000 yards
Last year, Syracuse entered the season with questions at quarterback. Tommy DeVito needed to figure things out in ’21, and he’s now grabbing hold of Illinois’ QB1 job because he couldn’t. Instead, Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader came from nowhere to jumpstart a rigor mortis-riddled Orange attack.
Shrader’s 23 total touchdowns on the season belie a mediocre first season throwing the football. Shrader wasn’t efficient (52.6% completion rate) nor aggressive (only 6.2 yards per attempt), and the Orange were eventually mauled late in the season by better teams who exploited those weaknesses.
Shrader is firmly cemented as SU’s starting signal-caller this year, but an increase in production is necessary to give the Orange O another dimension. Nine different ACC quarterbacks hit the 2,000 yard mark last season, and that short list includes names like Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei in a down year and Duke’s Gunnar Holmberg, who toiled for a 3-9 squad. A Top 10 in-conference yardage season at minimum from Shrader would suggest that he’s taken another step, used offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s system to great effect, and brought out the talent of the receiving room. Consider the passing game the 2022 SU squad’s largest X-factor.
A D-lineman needs to finish with at least 4.0 sacks
Syracuse actually brings back quite a bit of talent on its defensive side. Defensive coordinator Tony White’s 3-3-5 alignment made big strides in Year 2 last season, and the Orange finished with the ACC’s 4th best scoring defense. Cornerbacks Garrett Williams and Duce Chestnut are the big pieces in the secondary to return this year, and SU’s linebacking corps – Mikel Jones, Marlowe Wax, and Stefon Thompson – have a legit claim to be the conference’s all-around best.
However, the issue facing SU’s defense in ’22 is its sudden void on the defensive line. ‘Cuse lost all four starters to graduation and the draft last year, and suddenly needs to replace 15 sacks from its defensive line. Some combination of Caleb Okechukwu, Terry Lockett, Steve Linton, and others will have to scrape together a new-look pass rush.
We saw White’s defense function best last year thanks to one of the conference’s best pass rushes. To replicate that success and take pressure off the defense’s second and third levels, someone on the defensive line will need to step up and produce. If the Orange can get a 4.0-plus sack season from a D-lineman to go along with the pass-pressure talents of Wax and Thompson, the Orange defense will stay steady.
Sean Tucker plays in every game
Sometimes it’s fun to go back and look at Sean Tucker’s 2021 season from week-to-week as we wrote about it on the Fizz. We went from expecting big things in the preseason to applauding early outbursts against weaker teams to realizing on the fly that we were witnessing stardom. Tucker’s 1,496 yards set a new program record, and he nearly carried the Orange all the way to an unthinkable bowl just a year after going 1-10.
The one thing that often goes unsaid about Tucker’s ’21 season is that his durability was astonishing. 266 touches over 12 games add up, but Tucker never missed a game and finished with fewer than 100 yards just three times. His presence in every game dictated opposing teams’ defensive gameplans.
Production and game-changing ability are obvious reasons why Tucker is so important for this year. If SU’s star back can stay healthy and play in every game the Orange suit up for, it’ll go a long way in deciding how deep into the winter this bunch ends up playing.
SU springs a bonafide upset
Finally, we have the most pragmatic condition listed last. For all the things we look for from SU’s players this season, none of them may matter much if the team can’t band together for at least one big-time upset.
SU’s schedule is built in such a way that a solid start – potentially 5-0 or 4-1 – is generally expected. However, things get much tougher as conference play begins, meaning that the Orange may go into the final two or three weeks of the year in must-win mode. A brutal four-game stretch in late October against NC State, Clemson, Notre Dame, and Pitt may push this team to the brink.
To avoid that scenario, there are a couple upset candidates SU could yank a win away from. Last year, ‘Cuse shocked Liberty and Virginia Tech in the year’s two best feel-good wins. This year, realistic candidates to steal a matchup from include Louisville or Purdue at home in the first half or Wake Forest (perhaps without quarterback Sam Hartman) in mid-November. If the Orange can take a game they’re not supposed to win, that above all else could separate this team from all the others over the past decade or so who couldn’t manage to go bowling at season’s end.