Orange Watch: Part II of our 2021 Syracuse football season predictions

Dino Babers
Syracuse head coach Dino Babers speaks to media at 2021 ACC Kickoff.

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, finishing with games 7-13 (Part I was published last Tuesday 8/17):

It is the greatest win in the Babers regime.  Friday the 13th of October, during the 2017 season when Syracuse upset No. 2 ranked Clemson 27-24 to send most of the 42,475 Dome patrons into a frenzy.  SU came into the game at 3-3 and 22.5-point underdogs, but knocked Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant out of the contest in the second quarter on a vicious slam dunk tackle by Chris Slayton, and Orange quarterback Eric Dungey mustered just enough offensive to produce the shocker.  Incredibly, it is one of only two ACC losses Clemson has suffered (Notre Dame in an asterisk 2020 ACC season) in that time frame.  Can history repeat itself on an October Friday night this year?  Sure, it’s a possibility because the Tigers are off the week before the game, so it’s hard to know if they’ll be a step behind or well-oiled to perform in the semi-exclusive national TV window, but the odds are against it happening.  In fact, one Clemson fan site has predicted a (head scratching) 56-0 rout.  CU quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (oo-ee-ANH-gah-leh-lay) has a lot of work to do replacing Trevor Lawrence, but he’ll guide the Tigers to 10 fourth quarter points to hold off the SU upset bid 34-20.  (4-3, 1-2)

The last time a Syracuse football team ventured to Blacksburg, Va. was 2003 when Paul Pasqualoni and Frank Beamer manned their respective sidelines, and SU was a decade away from joining the ACC.  That ’03 game was a 51-7 debacle in favor of Virginia Tech, and take away the ‘Cuse 22-14 road upset in 2001, the Orange were outscored 120-7 in the other two games at rocking Lane Stadium since 1999 (the 62-0 prime time disaster).  There is more heat on Tech coach Justin Fuente to turn it around in ’21 than on Babers, and he has the starting talent to compete for the Coastal Division title, but not a lot of depth.  Syracuse struggles mightily to win ACC road games, just 4-17 under Babers, and they will struggle for three quarters this year until a Garrett Williams (donning jersey No. 8 this season) 56-yard pick six puts SU up 24-23 with under 3:00 to play.  The Hokies subsequent final drive includes a 4th and 1 conversion at midfield, and kicker John Parker Romo line drives a 42-yard field goal to send the Orange on to a quiet charter flight home falling 26-24.  (4-4, 1-3) 

As with Wake Forest, Boston College makes its third straight Dome appearance in 2021, and the Eagles will be gunning for their third straight win in a series that is evenly split in the eight ACC matchups between the northeast rivals.  There is no doubt it’s stock up in Chestnut Hill as Jeff Hafley’s second season unfolds coming from Ohio State (2019) after seven years in the NFL before that.  Junior quarterback Phil Jurkovec looks to improve on his impressive first season as the starter.  He has a go-to target in receiver Zay Flowers, and he’s protected by a stellar offensive line led by center Alec Lindstrom and guard Zion Johnson, the trio named to the first-team pre-season All-ACC squad.  This game turns out to be all about offense as Jurkovec and Tommy Devito fling passes all over the Dome field combining for nearly 600 yards in the air.  In the end though, it is a special teams play that provides the trigger for the Orange.  Freshman punter James Williams catches the Eagles off guard on a fake midway through the fourth quarter, slipping a tackle and gaining 12 yards on a 4th and 11 play on the BC 49-yard line, and that sets up a time-consuming drive culminating in a Devito 5-yard TD pass to Taj Harris – SU 41, BC 34.  (5-4, 2-3) 

Following a perfectly timed open week to start November, Syracuse travels to Cardinal Stadium in Louisville for a third consecutive season, looking to turnaround from 56-34 and 30-0 defeats the last two years.  Those games were all about an Orange defense having no answer for the ‘Ville quarterback Malik Cunningham (458 combined passing yards for 6 TDs), and the UL defense stifling Syracuse minus its starting quarterback Devito for essentially five of the eight quarters of game action due to injuries. While both Cunningham and Devito start this year’s meeting, it is SU backup Garrett Shrader that provides the offensive spark when Devito struggles early in the third quarter.  Shrader leads two scoring drives that result in 15 points (2-point conversion) and a tie game (31-31) with 4:00 to play.  But that man Cunningham performs his personal hat trick against the ‘Cuse defense, sprinting 17-yards into the endzone on a broken play with 0:57 left to break Orange hearts in a 38-31 victory. (5-5, 2-4)

Trivia question.  Who was the head coach at North Carolina State in 1972 for its first-ever meeting with Syracuse?  Why none other than Lou Holtz who was in the first of four seasons in Raleigh, as his Wolfpack defeated fellow College Football Hall of Famer Ben Schwartzwalder’s Orangemen 43-20.  This series has been decidedly in favor of NCSU (12-2 all-time), with both SU wins coming in ACC play, and only one victory in Raleigh (2013).  This season, a healthy Devin Leary at quarterback, combined with the most depth of talent coach Dave Doeren has had in his nine seasons, and only one game to be played outside of North Carolina in the final five weeks may mean the ‘Pack has a shot to challenge Clemson for the Atlantic title.  The teams meet Sept. 25 in Raleigh.  This will turn out to be one of those games that the momentum is going against the ‘Cuse from the opening kickoff.  Combined with a few key players getting banged up, it is simply a regressive, lackluster performance of consistency in a 28-16 defeat.  (5-6, 2-5) 

» Related: A former Syracuse defensive back has high expectations in 2021

So indeed, the season will come down to bowl game or bust scenario.  The Orange need a victory in the regular season finale against arch-rival Pittsburgh in the Dome over Thanksgiving weekend to become bowl eligible.  Pitt has its six wins but is playing for bowl positioning under the guidance of quarterback Kenny Pickett, the most experienced (37 career starts) player at that position in the ACC.  Mixing in both Devito and Shrader to keep the Panthers defense guessing, Babers pulls out all the stops from the playbook and personnel standpoints and the Orange is fired up leading 24-7 at halftime.  Pickett brings Pitt back to take the lead at 27-24 on a time-consuming drive with 7:00 left and SU stalls on the ensuing possession to punt and put the Panthers on their own 17-yard line.  Two plays later safety Jason Simmons steps in front of an errant Pickett throw and returns the ball to the Panthers 22-yard line.  That sets-up a Devito to Anthony Queeley jump ball pass play in the endzone for a Syracuse TD with 1:30 to play, and the defense holds on for an emotional 31-27 win and bowl eligibility.  The team mobs Babers at midfield as the Dome crowd revels in the stirring win.  (6-6, 3-5)

With Boston College (7-5) having a better record, the inaugural Fenway Bowl at famed Fenway Park does not get to select the hometown Eagles (much to BC’s relief because they want to travel for a bowl game), and instead settles for 6-6 Syracuse and its northeast alumni base against another northeast school, Temple, drawing howls of disappointment from Orange Nation.  But beggars can’t be choosy as Temple qualifies at 6-6 with a last game victory over Navy.  Syracuse has won five of its last six bowl game appearances, including four in-a-row, and even with an undesirable 11:00 a.m. local time kickoff on Dec. 29 not exactly a magnet for TV viewership, SU comes out on fire building up a 20-0 lead behind Devito and a stellar running attack in the frosty Fenway environs.  The Owls score on their first possession after halftime to cut the lead to 13, but a defensive score on a blocked punt recovery and one final Devito touchdown pass to Harris offsets a field goal and late Tempe TD in Syracuse’s 34-17 win to end with a winning season.  The positive ending provides plenty of optimism for the program’s upward direction to be consistently good in 2022.  (7-6)

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About Brad Bierman 762 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.