1. How does the Orange fanbase feel about Dino Babers and what he's done so far at Syracuse?
I think nearly everyone is excited about Babers still and enthusiastic for what he can do for the Orange program. When he came in, there was a promise of what could happen, but he asked for some patience. While we're still waiting to get to the peak of what Syracuse football can be, he's still managed to deliver two separate top 25 upsets and this year we've been in every game to the end. That's excellent progress few would bother trying to argue against.
2. Just how much does Eric Dungey mean to this Syracuse offense?
Dino refers to him as "the straw that stirs the drink" and even that might sell him short. While fellow skill position players like Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips are clearly talented, the run game still struggles an the offensive line is still a mess for Syracuse. Having a do-it-all veteran like Dungey under center helps close the gap those weaknesses create. He's also one of the most dynamic playmakers in the conference creating something from nothing as a rule. Who knows if the program progresses as far as it has under Babers so far without him.
3. Biggest difference from last year’s team?
The defense, without a doubt. Last year's defense was among the worst in the country as they looked lost transitioning from an aggressive 4-3 blitzing scheme to a coverage-focused Tampa-2 under Babers. The personnel doesn't really match for those two systems, and it looked like it each week. But this year, with a veteran group and some quality JUCOs, the pieces have really come together. SU's defense isn't perfect, and we're still going to give up some big plays. However, the Orange have the best third down defense in the country (according to opponent conversion rate) and have showed themselves able to stop the run too.
Before the season, we felt that a finish among the top 90 defenses in the FBS would be solid progress. Syracuse is on pace to finish among the top 60-70.
4. How excited is the team and fanbase to not play in a hurricane this year(it was pretty fun, right?)
Last year's game was miserable for many reasons, but most of all, the weather really took us out of our gameplan. We were a heavy passing team last year (still are this year, really) and the rain did us no favors. Without a run game to lean on, there went the offense (and the game). Syracuse and Wake were pretty evenly matched at the time, so the rain played a part in the result -- or at least the final point spread -- that I'd like to forget.
Yes, I'm aware you probably shouldn't design an offense for ONLY the indoors when everyone else in your league plays outside...
5. Who are the players to watch on the Syracuse defense -- what do they do best and how can they have a significant impact on Saturday?
Linebackers Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett are really the motor for this group, assisting the pass rush and also dropping back into coverage as necessary. Both seniors are aggressive and decisive going after the ball-carrier and are among our most disruptive players -- even if their names aren't the ones coming up on the stat sheet all the time. If you see something blown up at the line of scrimmage, it's probably as a result of something they did.
This year's defense has excelled on third down, as mentioned. But that's largely a result of their newfound ability to just get to ball-carriers and drop them. Open space, at the line -- doesn't seem to make a huge difference. Recent seasons have seen a lot of missed tackles and weak efforts at the point of attack. You're simply not seeing that this year as they swarm to the football almost immediately.
6. Give me one X-factor each for Syracuse's offense, defense, and special teams.
Other than Dungey being healthy, the X-factor for Syracuse's offense is success on first down. Like any team, Syracuse excels when setting up second and short(er) opportunities because it completely opens up the playbook. In games where we've won, you usually see bigger first down gains. In those we've lost, we've stalled out there. Starting fast (on drives and in the game) are critical for us to pull off a victory.
Defensively, we need to stop Wake Forest from running the football well. You guys are 5-1 when you run for at least 150 yards and that balance has been critical to setting up the much-improved passing game. Making you one-dimensional would give the Orange blitz more opportunities and hopefully create some turnovers out of that.
7. Prediction time - tell me who will win, what the score will be, and your reasoning behind that prediction.
Assuming Dungey plays (he's listed as questionable right now), I'll take Syracuse by a score of 30-26. These teams are evenly matched in many respects, so the margin is going to swing on a mistake, in all likelihood. The Orange defense has played extremely well at the Carrier Dome this year, and I'm expecting that trend to continue. They understand how much we need this win for bowl eligibility. That doesn't guarantee you're going out there and winning. But it helps. I think SU ends up stopping a Wake Forest drive in the closing minutes to seal the win and get back to .500.
Many thanks to John for taking the time to answer my questions!