Clemson will put its unblemished record and No. 3 ranking on the line Saturday when the Tigers play host to perhaps the Atlantic Coast Conference’s most surprising unbeaten team: Syracuse.
“They beat us last year, so they know they can beat us – and we know they can beat us,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Indeed, Syracuse is one of just two Atlantic Coast Conference teams (Pitt being the other in 2016) to defeat Clemson since November of 2014. The-then No. 2-ranked Tigers fell at Syracuse last season 27-24 as quarterback Eric Dungey threw three touchdown passes and the Orange defense held the Tigers to only 113 yards rushing.
“This quarterback is a baller, man,” Swinney said. “We did not contain him very well at all last year. It all starts with this quarterback. He’ll have a chance to play after Syracuse, for sure.”
Dungey ranks among the ACC leaders in both rushing and passing, totaling 279.3 yards per game, and keying a Syracuse offense that is averaging 49.5 points per game, which ranks 10th in the FBS.
Both teams enter Saturday’s nationally televised noon game with identical 4-0 overall records and 1-0 ACC starts.
“If you can think of a way to run a screen, they’ve got it,” Swinney said. “We’re going to need our depth in this game for sure.”
Despite Syracuse’s stunning upset of the Tigers at the Carrier Dome last season, the momentum didn’t carry over as the teams went in opposite directions. Clemson won six straight games before losing to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl while the Orange closed the season with five consecutive defeats en route to a 4-8 finish.
Swinney insists that revenge isn’t a factor this time around.
“A bad memory and a bad taste in my mouth is a motivating factor,” Swinney said. “Hey, they won the football game, they outplayed us. When you look back on that last year, bad things happened. How do you respond? We want to win this game not to get revenge, but because it’s a division game and we want to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.”
Syracuse coach Dino Babers will be taking a team into Clemson’s Death Valley for a second time, and he’d rather not recall the first trip to Clemson in his first season at the helm in 2016. The Tigers won going away, 54-0, on their way to the national title.
“We had a lot of difficulties,” Babers said. “We couldn’t hear. It’s going to be extremely loud, but that’s how it’s supposed to be in a big game when you’re going into somebody else’s place.
“Clemson’s going to be ready to go, and we’re not going to have our home crowd with us. They’re going to have their home crowd with them. That’s a big advantage.”
Syracuse also will face one of the nation’s top defenses. Led by a defensive front line of All-America candidates Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, the Tigers rank among the national leaders in total defense, tackles for loss, sacks and rushing defense.
“They’re an extremely talented team,” Babers said. “Their entire front four is going to get drafted. I’ve never seen a front four like that before. It’s going to take an almost spotless game on our part, but we’re looking forward to the chance to go down there and play them.”
As if that weren’t tall task enough for the Orange, Clemson will give freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence the first start of his career. Lawrence, a 6-foot-6 gunslinger who ranked among the top high school quarterbacks in the country last year, split time with incumbent Kelly Bryant through the first four games, but was named the team’s starter for the Syracuse game on Monday.
“He has the elite ability to push the ball down the field,” Swinney said. “He’s got a bunch of touchdown drives and has just been very, very productive. He deserves this.”
Lawrence was named ACC Rookie of the Week for his performance in a victory at Georgia Tech last Saturday that included four touchdown passes to four different receivers.