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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Syracuse star RB Sean Tucker keys Orange run to a bowl

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 27 Pitt at Syracuse

SYRACUSE, NY - NOVEMBER 27: Syracuse Orange Running Back Sean Tucker (34) runs with the ball during the first half of the College Football game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Syracuse Orange on November 27, 2021, at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Syracuse may have gone 11-24 since its breakout 2018 season, but the Orange could also be the subtle trap opponent on Notre Dame’s schedule. Led by a likely All-American at running back and a possible All-American at linebacker, with 17 total returning starters, Syracuse enjoys a more complete roster than its recent struggles would suggest.

Then again, four of those five departed starters came from the Orange lines, and head coach Dino Babers brought in a couple new offensive assistants for a reason.

That 2018 high point felt like more than three years ago during Syracuse’s 2021 conference slate, going 2-6 in the ACC with its only wins coming at Virginia Tech after the Hokies had largely given up on former head coach Justin Fuente and against Boston College before star Eagles quarterback Phil Jurkovec returned from a hand injury.

But the Orange was closer than that 2-6 stumble reflected. Its first three conference losses, leading directly into those two wins, were all by three points apiece. Win just one of those games at Florida State, against Wake Forest or against Clemson and suddenly Syracuse would have been back in a bowl game for the first time since 2018.

Babers’ seat is not necessarily hot, but a postseason appearance would have done wonders for both his job security and for general Orange optimism heading into 2022.

Instead, Syracuse lost all three of those and then followed up its momentary conference winning streak with three losses by an average score of 37.7 to 11.3.

A veteran center and all the defensive line starters sum up the Orange departures this winter. Babers also revamped much of his offensive coaching staff, raiding the staff at Virginia after Bronco Mendenhall’s unexpected retirement.

Syracuse ranks No. 11 below at 80 percent returning production.

Junior running back Sean Tucker may be the best back in the country, and with four returning offensive linemen with 120 returning starts among them, he will have a chance to run like that, too. A physical back at 5-foot-10 and 209 pounds, Tucker spent the winter working on his speed by sprinting with the Syracuse track team.

His 1,496 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 246 carries last year (6.08 yards per rush) were supplemented by quarterback Garrett Shrader’s 14 rushing touchdowns. A one-time Mississippi State receiver — no, that’s not a typo — Shrader had not worked extensively at quarterback in a couple years before 2021, and his arm often looked like it, throwing only nine touchdowns compared to four interceptions. But his ability running the ball kept the Orange offense moving, averaging 213.5 rushing yards per game.

He will now have Michigan State receiver transfer CJ Hayes to look for and an offensive coordinator more inclined to throw the ball a good bit rather than run alone, but do not look for Syracuse to get away from what works for it. And what works for Syracuse is Tucker.

An offensive assistant coach his entire career before becoming a head coach in 2012, Babers has kept the Orange defense steady. In a 3-3-5 approach — really, a 3-4 with the fourth linebacker being a Rover that is more a safety/linebacker hybrid than Notre Dame’s version of a Rover that is a linebacker/defensive end hybrid — Syracuse returns the entire starting back-eight, led by linebacker Mikel James (110 tackles with 13 for loss including four sacks) and cornerback Garrett Williams (10 pass breakups).

That raises Syracuse’s floor immensely this season, even if it will face a bounty of notable quarterbacks. Beginning in mid-October, the Orange will face North Carolina State’s Devin Leary, Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei, Pittsburgh’s Kedon Slovis, possibly Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman and then Jurkovec all in the span of seven weeks.

All those offenses would prefer to throw the ball than run it, though, with the possible exception of Pittsburgh as Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi has pontificated most of this summer. So Syracuse’s veteran secondary may keep the Orange in games that other ACC middlings will struggle in.

Given that optimism around both Syracuse’s rushing attack and its veteran defense, a wins total Over/Under may be expected to be higher than the 4.5 set by PointsBet. But North Carolina State, Clemson and Notre Dame all have Playoff aspirations, cutting into the Orange ceiling this year.

Games at Connecticut, against Virginia and Wagner in the first five weeks of the season should give Syracuse a decent start. At that point, the question will be if the Orange can win two games against Louisville, Purdue, Pittsburgh, Florida State, Wake Forest and Boston College.

A strong rushing attack and a veteran defense should manage two wins in those six games, if not also a third to garner bowl eligibility. For that matter, do not overlook Syracuse making one of those Playoff hopefuls worry, even if it will be at least a 17-point underdog against the Irish.

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