In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
This is Dino Babers' most talented team at Syracuse. They have strong offensive and defensive lines and two good options at quarterback and can't possibly have a minus-12 turnover margin again. Depth, however, is a major concern.
“We don’t have depth,” the third-year head coach said after spring practice. “We really don’t have that depth yet. We have to continue to work on it and create it. That’s why we’ve got guys playing multiple positions. There are some positions that are a lot better than others. We have a little bit of a depth issue. Not at all positions, but most positions.”
Syracuse was not your average four-win team. While they did lose to Middle Tennessee (at home) and were plastered by Louisville and Boston College, they hung with LSU, NC State and Miami (FL), and beat Clemson. It was an odd four-win season that felt like a bunch of small and big steps forward and backward at the same time.
Head Coach: Dino Babers (3rd Year, 8-16)
It didn't take long for Dino Babers to win at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green but he had to have known it would take a little longer to win at Syracuse. And while he has just eight wins in two seasons, the Orange are improving and the offense will be one of the better in the ACC this season.
"We need a team that's going to be consistently good, not occasionally great. And occasionally great is exactly what we've been, which is something that I literally cannot stand," Babers said in March, referring to wins over Virginia Tech (2016) and Clemson (2017) during his tenure.
He shuffled his coaching staff, hiring new assistants and moving three others to new jobs.
WR Steve Ishmael, WR Ervin Philips, LB Parris Bennett, LB Zaire Franklin, K Cole Murphy
All six of Syracuse's All-ACC selections were seniors, including two receivers who accounted for 60 percent of the team's receptions, Steve Ishmael (105 receptions) and Ervin Philips (89). Neither were home-run hitters or deadly red-zone threats but they were one of the best and most reliable duos in the country.
The departures of tackling machines Parris Bennett and Zaire Franklin leave huge holes at linebacker and Cole Murphy is gone after hitting 71 percent of his career field-goal attempts.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Eric Dungey, RB Dontae Strickland, RB Moe Neal, WR Devin Butler, TE Ravian Pierce, OT Cody Conway, G Evan Adams, C Airon Servais
Sean Lewis left for the Kent State job, leaving longtime Babers' assistant Mike Lynch as the lone coordinator. Lynch is tasked with finding ways for the offense to finish drives, take more calculated risks and finding big plays.
The unit racked up a ton of yards (456 per game, 3rd in the ACC and 23rd in the FBS) but struggled on third down (39.7 percent) and in the red zone (scored a touchdown on 48.9 percent of opportunities). And they committed an average of two turnovers per game.
Quarterback Eric Dungey didn't have the 2017 season that everyone expected. His completion percentage was worse, as were his yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio and just about everything else as a passer. As a runner, however, he improved, ranking 18th among all FBS quarterbacks with 595 yards while showing excellent vision and good escape ability.
“He can handle it. We need to see him out there,” Babers said. “We’re a better football team when he’s out there . . . He’s as good as he can be."
A late-season leg injury limited Dungey in spring practice, opening the door for redshirt freshman and former four-star recruit Tommy DeVito to get first-team reps, and, despite Babers' comments on Dungey, there could be a legitimate competition entering fall camp.
"I think he really closed ground having so many opportunities to work with the No. 1 offense, to work with the No. 1 wide receivers," Babers said of DeVito. "And that development is going to pay off."
Running back Dontae Strickland's efficiency numbers remained poor (3.8 yards per carry, one touchdown per 32 attempts) but he improved in pass protection and was terrific vs. Clemson and Miami (33 carries for 183 yards). Junior Moe Neal should get 100 carries as the No. 2 back. Devin Butler is the new No. 1 target with Ishmael and Philips gone. Senior tight end Ravian Pierce will also see 50-plus targets.
The offensive line has come a long, long way from two years ago when they were one of the worst units in the country. Sophomore center Airon Servais is back after a solid first season.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Kendall Coleman, DE Alton Robinson, DT Chris Slayton, LB Ryan Guthrie, CB Chris Frederick, CB Scoop Bradshaw, S Evan Foster, S Andre Sisco
Syracuse's defense did a lot of good things last season, including holding Clemson to 317 total yards and ranking 13th nationally on third downs (31 percent). Their pressure numbers, however, were horrendous: Sixteen sacks, 67 tackles for loss, four interceptions and seven fumble recoveries. They rarely imposed their will and almost never flipped the field with game-changing plays. And honestly, it's surprising, because the talent is there.
Coordinator Brian Ward has an army of experienced upperclassmen in the front four and back four, led by potential All-ACC First-Team defensive tackle Chris Slayton. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound senior is stronger than a dump truck and has 17.5 tackles for loss the last two seasons.
“Slayton is an M and an N with an A in the middle,” Babers said in April. “He’s the real deal.”
Syracuse doesn't return a linebacker who had more than 13 tackles last year. Senior Ryan Guthrie appears to be the leader of a new starting group that is projected to feature all upperclassmen. It's a group that Baber said must "grow up" quickly.
"It's a hungry room right now," Guthrie said in March. "I know if I don't do what I've got to do, I won't stay at No. 1. And we need all the linebackers. We need everyone to be successful."
The secondary seemed helpless too often last year and their depth was obliterated when five defensive backs transferred. Thankfully, they have some experience at corner in juniors Chris Frederick and Scoop Bradshaw. Andre Sisco was a surprise spring starter at safety.
QB Tommy DeVito, WR Sharod Johnson, OT Koda Martin, G Dakota Davis, LB Ryan Guthrie, LB Lakiem Williams
Tommy DeVito is the big one, even if he doesn't play any meaningful snaps this season. As noted, he's a redshirt freshman that is clearly making a huge impression on the staff. He's the future — and if Dungey can't improve his downfield passing, could be the present, too.
Elsewhere, redshirt freshmen Dakota Davis and Sharod Johnson both got first-team reps at guard and receiver, respectively, during spring practice. Texas A&M transfer Koda Martin is competing for the starting right tackle spot and JUCO transfer Lakiem Williams will have an opportunity in a wide-open linebacker group.
Hat tip to Syracuse for hitting the road in Week 1 for a Friday night game vs. a Group of Five opponent. The trip to Western Michigan is the first half of a home-and-home series that concludes with a home game vs. the Broncos in 2019.
If their Week 4 game was a basketball game a decade ago it'd be a can't-miss affair. Instead, it's Syracuse vs. UConn in football.
They play Notre Dame on Nov. 17 at Yankee Stadium.
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