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Matching up with the heavily favored North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday will be “very, very difficult,” head coach Dino Babers said in a virtual press conference Monday.
The Tar Heels’ combination of talent under center, on the outside and in the backfield make their offense a tough litmus test for SU’s shiny new 3-3-5 defense.
“Their offense is a lot like ours,” Babers said. “They run a lot of (run-pass options), try to take their shots deep and mix it up. So it’s going to be a difficult situation.”
Most oddsmakers have North Carolina as 22-point favorites at home as of Monday afternoon. SU beat the Tar Heels two years ago, 40-37 in double overtime, and weren’t supposed to play the team this year until the Tar Heels were added to the modified 2020 schedule.
SU also just released a depth chart full of surprises, whereas Mack Brown’s team returns 10 starters on offense, including Sam Howell (38 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2019 as a freshman).
“You’re talking about a person that a lot of people say is the second-best quarterback in the conference,” Babers said of Howell. “He’s got a big time arm. He can touch the entire football field, no doubt about it. He’s one of those guys that’s going to end up being a high draft pick.”
Babers wishes the Orange got to play Howell later in the season so they could have more time to prepare and learn their strengths. SU’s relatively inexperienced roster didn’t even get a spring practice, so Babers doesn’t exactly know what to expect. The team isn’t where he’d hoped it would be heading into the season, he said.
UNC averaged the second-most total yards per game (474) in the Atlantic Coast Conference last year during a 7-6 campaign. That wasn’t only Howell.
Four out of five starting offensive linemen return for the Tar Heels, a crucial continuity that SU lacks. On the outside, Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome each recorded double-digit receiving touchdowns and over 1,000 yards. Plus, both Michael Carter (1,003 rushing yards) and Javonte Williams (933 yards) return after averaging more than five yards per carry last year.
UNC’s well-rounded offensive attack may force SU to sell out to stop one or the other, Babers said. In the 3-3-5, that might mean moving Cisco, the rover, into the box more often than usual.
“If you let them do everything, you’re probably not going to stop anything,” Babers said.
Defensively, UNC allowed 23.7 points per game last year, fourth-best in the conference. The focal point is Chazz Surratt, a converted quarterback who’s now a First-Team All-ACC linebacker. Surratt led the Tar Heels with 15 tackles for loss and was second in the ACC in total tackles (115).
“It’s really impressive to see a quarterback come over and have that kind of impact from a tackling standpoint,” Babers said of Surratt. “He just thinks like a quarterback, much like Andre Cisco when he’s in our secondary. Guys that have that offensive mentality on defense, like a Trill Williams, like an (Ifeatu Melifonwu), those guys are going to make those plays, and there’s no doubt he’s going to make plays on Saturday.”
Keeping starting quarterback Tommy DeVito upright against Surratt and the rest of UNC’s front seven will be paramount. Babers called his offensive line — which now includes converted fullback and defensive tackle Chris Elmore at left guard — “scrappy and proudful.”
Pro Football Focus ranked SU’s offensive line in 2019 101st out of 130 FBS teams, and they’re now without transfer Chris Bleich and guard Dakota Davis, who wasn’t listed on the Week 1 depth chart.
For its potentially shaky offensive line, unproven defense and lacking skill position players, Syracuse is at a major disadvantage against UNC. The Tar Heels haven’t been favored by 22 points since 2012 against Maryland, according to College Gameday. But anything can happen.
“I’m just glad there’s faith, belief without evidence,” Babers said, as Syracuse’s recent upsets over 20-plus point favorites Clemson and Virginia Tech proved.
To reiterate his point, Babers quoted 1994 comedy “Dumb and Dumber,” which stars Jim Carrey as Lloyd Christmas. In it, Christmas’ love interest, Mary, informs him that there is a one-in-a-million chance she likes him, to which Christmas responds: “So, you’re telling me there’s a chance?”
“Every once in a while things happen not the way they’re supposed to happen,” Babers said. “Mathematically, there’s a chance. Dumb and Dumber, right? ‘So you’re telling me I have a chance?’ So, we’ll see. But I think the big thing is our guys are excited to play a football game, and we’re going to go down there and give it our best shot.”
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