Zach Lentz

Lentz

Second-year head coach Dino Babers has excelled in taking a Syracuse offense that was anything but exciting in previous years and turning it into one of the most exciting offenses in the country.

The former Baylor assistant coach brought his high-flying, pass-heavy, up-tempo offense to upstate New York after stints as head coach at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green. He immediately gave the Orange a new identity.

This week arguably will be Babers’ greatest challenge as the Orange welcome the second-ranked Clemson Tigers.

“The coolest thing, the biggest compliment I can give Coach Swinney, is you're playing a football team,” Babers said. “Sometimes you go against teams like that and you're playing a bunch of individuals, guys that are waiting for their turn to get drafted in the first round and go make money in the pros. That's not what you've got when you play Clemson. You're playing a family. You're playing a team that cares about each other and it's a big task.”

Syracuse on offense

Known for his innovative, ultra-fast offense, Babers planted the seeds of Syracuse’s revival in 2016 and the program immediately began reaping the rewards. The Orange knocked off a ranked opponent for the first time in four years, toppling eventual ACC Coastal champion Virginia Tech at the Carrier Dome.

Babers commanded an offense that set or tied more than 40 school records, including new program season records for passing attempts (522), pass completions (332) and passing yards (3,855). In addition, Syracuse racked up 5,290 yards of offense, the second-highest total in school history.

The high-powered Orange offense will be facing its toughest challenge of the season this week against one of the best defenses in the nation.

“You look at it, there's no holes. There's no weaknesses,” Babers said. “It starts with fantastic athletes. They do an outstanding job in recruiting. Obviously, Coach Venables does a fantastic job with the defense. He's got a lot of experience with spread teams from his Oklahoma background, being in the Big 12. I just think he puts a lot of fantastic athletes in the right spots and gets them to play at a high, feverish pitch.

“You put those combinations together and you're going to have a national-championship-type defense, and that's exactly what they have.”

Syracuse on defense

Under second-year defensive coordinator Brian Ward, the Orange have improved greatly over last season, which saw them struggle in nearly every major defensive category.

In 2016, the Orange ranked 120th in scoring defense, 122nd in total defense, 108th in rushing defense, 81st in first downs allowed and 82nd in third-down defense. This season, the Orange defensive unit ranks 54th in scoring defense, 46th in total defense and rushing defense, 72nd in first downs allowed and sixth in third-down defense.

Even with uncertainty surrounding the Clemson quarterback position, as rumors continue to circulate that starting quarterback Kelly Bryant will not play (ankle), Babers believes the Tigers’ offense has more than enough pieces to make up for whomever gets the start at quarterback.

“All you got to do is hand the ball back to one of those five-star tailbacks or throw the ball up to one of those five-star wide receivers,” Babers said. “Their backup quarterback, I think he was like the No. 1 quarterback in the country or something like that. The big thing with Clemson is not necessarily who's playing quarterback.

“It's the other 21 guys. It's the 10 guys on offense and those 11 guys on defense that happen to be fantastic football players as well. They've got a good team, regardless of who the quarterback is going to be.”

Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.

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