Item: It’s bowl game or bust for the 2021 Orange, with arguably the best young talent of any of the six rosters in the Dino Babers era (roughly 66% of the roster are sophomores/freshman including redshirts in those classes). There’s also a mix of some experienced players on both lines and at quarterback, along with a positive attitude that permeates through the program.
Here’s our annual pre-season prognostications of each game in chronological order, starting with games 1-6 (Part II runs Tuesday 8/24):
It’s rare that college football transactional news breaks over the summer months, but that’s exactly what happened on July 14. Longtime Ohio football coach Frank Solich, the winningest coach in Mid-American Conference history, announced his retirement that morning due to health reasons (a cardiovascular issue), ending a 55-year coaching career, the last 16 successfully running the Bobcats program with bowl appearances in 10 of the last 11 seasons. Offensive coordinator Tim Albin has seamlessly taken over, so Syracuse coaches will have a pretty good idea how to game plan the most crucial season opener in Babers six seasons. After a close game for three quarters, SU, behind Tommy Devito, will get a late short touchdown run on a time-eating drive to turn away pesky Ohio 31-20. (1-0)
Since then-athletic director John Currie botched the Greg Schiano hiring at Tennessee in November 2017, the Volunteers are just 16-19 overall-10-16 in SEC play, and on their second coach after Josh Heupel replaced Jeremy Pruitt this past off season. Tennessee’s loss turned out to be Rutgers’s gain, as Schiano leveraged his past success leading New Jersey’s State University to a mega-deal for his second go-round starting last season. The 33,000 fans venturing inside the newly air-conditioned Dome for the 2:00 p.m. ET home opener are grateful for the comfort on the 75-degree day outside. To Orange Nation, other than the same aluminum seating the building and giant video board look beautiful, the time to purchase concessions has been drastically reduced, and there are even moderations to the rest rooms. On the field, it’s a grudge match. Tied at 27 with under 2:00 to play, Andre Szmyt’s 37-yard field goal puts the Orange ahead 30-27, then an ensuing Rutgers 4th and 1 play at the SU 45-yard line is stuffed by linebacker Mikel Jones (sporting jersey No. 3 this season) with under 0:10 to play. (2-0)
One day, former Syracuse-area high school star quarterback Will Fiacchi (Marcellus) is likely to fulfill his ambition to be a college football head coach. For now, he’s in his fifth year at his alma mater coaching the UAlbany wide receivers and serves as recruiting coordinator under Greg Gattuso. Fiacchi is the school’s all-time passing leader (7,150 yards) after starting 35 consecutive games for the Great Danes between 2011-14. Against Syracuse, Gattuso wishes Fiacchi still had eligibility as the SU D-line overwhelms the less talented FCS member’s O-line, sacking UAlbany quarterback Jeff Undercuffler five times, and DL Kingsley Jonathan scoops up a fumble for a 5-yard score in the third quarter in a 40-7 rout. (3-0)
As a member of the AFCA Board of Coaches, Babers is one of 65 coaches from FBS schools who vote each week during the season (7 of the 14 ACC schools have coaches voting) in the USA Today coaches’ poll. For the first iteration of the poll this season, the pre-season list announced on August 10, Babers may have had a say in Liberty receiving enough votes to place 30th on the list (Liberty was 29th in the AP preseason poll released Monday). It’s been quite a program building accomplishment for Hugh Freeze, and he has one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in Malik Willis. The junior contributed 240-yards of offense in the Flames 38-20 win over the ‘Cuse in the Dome last season, the exact number of points Liberty averaged per game finishing 10-1 (the only loss was 15-14 to N.C. State). This year, there will be four lead changes in the second half, the last coming when a tipped Devito throw lands in the hands of Liberty linebacker Rashaad Harding who runs 32-yards for a touchdown to silence the Friday night Dome crowd in a 37-31 stunner. (3-1)
While the specific item has yet to be announced, there is no doubt that Florida State players will adorn their uniform this season with a memorial honoring the great Bobby Bowden. The Hall of Famer and second winningest all-time FBS coach died from pancreatic cancer on August 8 at age 91. Bowden built the Seminoles program into a national powerhouse, and he coached against SU on campus at both Archbold Stadium (1978) and the Dome (1989, 2004). The 2021 ACC opener on the road in Tallahassee is as tough an assignment as it gets in league play for the Orange, who have never won in five previous meetings in Florida’s state capital dating back to 1991. 2020 marked the third straight losing season for FSU, the first time that’s happened since 1974-76, so the pressure is on second year coach Mike Norvell to turn things around this year. After a predicted 3-1 start (a loss to Notre Dame Sept. 5), the Seminoles, behind just enough offense from quarterback McKenzie Milton, will out play a hot and tired Syracuse defense in the second half on route to a 28-17 victory. (3-2, 0-1)
In a scheduling quirk due to the extraneous factors caused by the pandemic-plagued 2020 campaign, Wake Forest will make its third straight trip the Dome this season, something that has not happened since West Virginia played three straight years at Archbold between 1961-63. This game will mark a breakout for freshman wide receiver Damien Alford (No. 82), who actually caught his only collegiate pass last year in the Dome against the Demon Deacons (an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19), and competed in four of Syracuse’s last five games of the season. Alford has wowed his teammates this month in preseason camp, and he will wow the home crowd with a pair of first-half touchdown grabs from Devito to help give SU a 21-7 lead at the break. But Wake Forest doesn’t fold (the teams have split the last six meetings), and it takes a Szmyt field goal and short touchdown run by Sean Tucket in the final 6:00 to cement a 38-28 Orange win. (4-2, 1-1)
Be sure to check in next week as we reveal our predictions for games 7 through 12!