Orange Watch: Part I, 2015 Syracuse football game-by-game previews and predictions

Shafer returns to SU on Saturday
Entering his important third season, Scott Shafer understands better than anyone the hunger to qualify for a 2015 bowl game

Item: At first glance, the schedule, heavy with ACC road games on the backend, the ever-present weekly fear of inevitable injuries that occur in every game, and which sidelined some key players during this month’s preseason camp, makes it hard to forecast the 2015 Orange gaining the six wins needed for a slot in one of the record 42 bowl games (including the College Football Playoff championship game) on this year’s list. But with an improved offense, a young defense that will get better each week, better special teams play, the schedule’s flip-side with zero travel in September and a decent chance to get out to a rare 3-0 start (for the first time since going 4-0 in 1991), halfway to the bowl minimum of six, this year’s squad could end up seeing a repeat scenario from 2013, needing a win in the season finale versus arch-rival Boston College in the Dome to seal a bowl trip and continue the development and improved recruiting of Scott Shafer’s first three seasons.

Part 1 – The first half of the season’s 12 regular season games, follows in schedule order.

The last time FCS member Rhode Island visited the humid, sticky, confined stale air conditions of a late summer Dome atmosphere was in 2011, the second game of the season, and they put a scare into a ‘Cuse team that a week earlier knocked off Wake Forest in a Dome OT thriller. The Rams were a more experienced group in ’11 as compared to this year’s team, picked to finish 11th in the 12 team Colonial Athletic Conference after a 1-11 season a year ago. The only other meeting in 2002 was a 63-17 SU blowout. As the new-look, Tim Lester coordinated Orange offense gets its first live shot executing against an opposing defense, that in this case returns eight players from a unit that gave up 34 points a game, it may not take too long to get in sync. Although it proves to be an overall choppy performance, the Terrel Hunt-led group will score enough points for a 27-9 victory, while the young defense will bend, but not break, yielding three field goals. (1-0)

The opening two games are reversed from 2011 as Wake Forest provides an early ACC test in week two, with the teams in this matchup picked to either finish sixth or seventh (last) in the Atlantic Division depending on your favorite summer preseason poll. Perhaps the biggest news from the Demon Deacons off season was not head coach Dave Clawson’s preparations for his second year guiding the rebuilding project, a similar endeavor also taken on by the Orange in trying to compete with bigger state school-resourced conference rivals, but the “Tit for tat” debate Clawson got into with the soon-to-be new host (Sept. 8) of the Late Show on CBS, Stephen Colbert, a few weeks after Colbert’s May commencement address in Winston-Salem, which you can read about here. As to the game itself on the Dome’s brand new Field Turf and in front of an ‘Orange Out’ crowd, this is where cool sophomore kicker Cole Murphy is clutch, his 38 yard field goal with 0:18 left wins a 24-23 squeaker. (2-0, 1-0)

» More SU football: Meet H-back Erv Phillips

It’s hard to blame former Central Michigan coach Dan Enos for leaving to take a higher paying job, it’s just the timing wasn’t so great for his former employer. Only 13 days before the national recruiting letter of intent day this past Feb. 4, Enos took a nearly $200,000 boost in salary to become the offensive coordinator at Arkansas, leaving the CMU program in the hands of alum John Bonamego who came back to campus after a 15 year assistant coaching career in the NFL. In June, Bonamego was diagnosed with a treatable form of tonsil cancer, and last week completed an eight week program of chemo and radiation, in between appearing at the MAC media day event in somewhat close by Detroit July 29, and last Friday returned to the practice field. In just nine days his Chippewas open the season with a tough test hosting Oklahoma State, and by the time they visit the Dome in week three, the Orange will be ready as they were a year ago in Mount Pleasant rolling up the offensive yards, playing stout ‘D’ and special teams on route to a 38-16 win and accomplishing a rare 3-0 start. (3-0, 1-0)

We detailed some of the non-football historical notes that connected the Syracuse-LSU two game series, bowl games played in 1965 and 1989, earlier this summer, and when the teams meet for the first time in the regular season, and for the Tigers, the first time venturing to this part of the country since a 1947 game with Boston College at old Braves Field in Beantown, the fans clad in purple and gold are going to party like it was, well…1989! Some 10,000 LSU fans are expected to descend upon central New York; they’ve rented a nearby university building to host the most important pre and post game socializing, and in between will be focused on watching sophomore tailback Leonard Fournette add to his school record rookie rushing season, while wondering if there is any team letdown a week after hosting big rival Auburn before a rare charter flight northeast bound. In a psychological ploy, Shafer will ask his counterpart Les Miles for permission to mimic the Tigers most of the time, by wearing white at home, just as LSU could ask of the Orange in 2017. So despite wearing its rarely worn purple jerseys, and a gallant fourth quarter Orange effort for the upset, the Bengal Tigers hang on to win 31-23, and SU misses out on sweeping the uncommon four straight Sept. home games. (3-1, 1-0)

Following a much deserved, and needed, open week, the first road game trip is to a familiar destination, Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, and former Big East mate South Florida. In the seasons both schools were conference foes, 2005-12, the Bulls’ Florida recruiting advantage was evident, especially 2005-09, winning six of the eight games by a cumulative 31-14 margin. Now that SU has moved up as a member of a power five, autonomy conference, it’s certainly spreading its recruiting tentacles into Florida, Georgia, and even Alabama, looking to maintain an edge over teams from the old Big East turned American. USF coach Willie Taggart is trying to stop a streak of four straight losing seasons and season ticket sales are down to some 12,000 in the cavernous 65,890 seat home of the NFL’s Buccaneers. In this meeting, the off rhythm of not having played in two weeks shows early for Syracuse falling behind 17-3 in the second quarter, unable to stop elusive USF quarterback Quinton Flowers early on. Suddenly a turnover and short field cut the lead to seven, and in the second half Hunt looks sharp passing and running for a score, while the defense shuts down the run and seals matters with a late interception to win 28-24, and the Orange actually receive one anonymous vote in one of the following week’s polls. (4-1, 1-0)

It’s been a decade since Syracuse and Virginia last met as out of conference opponents, the Cavaliers winning by three at the Dome in 2005, and the Orange knocked out 31-10 the year before at Charlottesville, the picturesque site of this year’s ACC meeting. SU swept both games in the 1970s, including a 1977 infamous 6-3 show of a combined offensive ineptness at Archbold Stadium. Talk about killer schedules, before meeting Syracuse in mid October, UVA will have traveled to UCLA, hosted Notre Dame, Boise State, tough FCS state-rival William & Mary, and opened conference play at Pittsburgh. Ouch. No wonder the school gave head coach Mike London another year despite a 1-5 finish; it would have been tough to find a new coach wanting to inherit that OOC slate. But the ‘Cuse will drop to 1-2 all time in CVille, as buoyed by quarterback Matt Johns command of the Cavaliers offense, and an untimely Syracuse miscue of a bouncing kickoff resulting in an easy, two play UVA short scoring drive in the third quarter, the Orange fall 28-17. (4-2, 1-1)

Part 2, the rest of the season, will run next Monday, Aug. 31.

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About Brad Bierman 766 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.