First things first: Syracuse is better than you probably think. The Orange have been incredibly inconsistent this year -- lose to USC by only 13, beat Stony Brook by only 11, lose to Minnesota, almost beat Rutgers, lose to Cincinnati, whip Louisville -- and are both a couple of close wins away from 3-7 and a couple of close losses away from 7-3. But when they look good (as they did against Louisville), their good moments are better than their bad moments are bad (if that makes sense). As a result, their F/+ rankings are actually downright solid right now (31st overall, 20th on offense, 37th on defense). But they rarely actually play like the No. 31 team in the country -- they're more likely to play like a Top 20-caliber team or one not deserving of Top 50 mention.
That Syracuse lost on the road to Minnesota and is only 1-3 on the road overall means that Missouri fans should expect the Tigers to win this game. But it won't be as easy as you probably hope. From my Q&A today with Sean from Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician (completely ignoring the fact that I didn't realize there was a second part to the question):
A prediction for the game and the rest of Missouri's season...
I like Syracuse quite a bit -- I've talked up the Orange a couple of times at SBN. But I think the CURRENT version of Missouri, one with a semi-healthy James Franklin, a more experience (if still ridiculously hobbled) offensive line, a receiving corps that no longer has its collective head up its collective posterior, and a strong defense (which has been a constant all season) should be able to get the Tigers to six wins. I say it's something like 17-17 at halftime, and Mizzou eventually pulls away to win ... um ... we'll say 34-24.
If it's tied at halftime, don't freak out. The 'Cuse is good enough to do that. They just shouldn't (hopefully) be good enough (hopefully) to pull off the win (hopefully).
Let's go depth chartin'!
Ryan Nassib won the 'Cuse starting quarterback job as a redshirt freshman in 2009, then lost it to a Duke basketball player (Greg Paulus). I think that hurt perceptions of him, and I'm not sure they have recovered. Nassib is a damn good quarterback. In almost three years as Syracuse's starter, with a receiving corps of come-and-go quality, Nassib has completed 61 percent of his passes for 62 touchdowns and 25 interceptions. In 2012, those numbers are 63 percent, 21 and eight. He's got a pair of strong receivers this year, but in general he might be one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country.
HB: Jerome Smith (6'0, 217, Jr.) (907 rushing yards, 5.3 per carry, 2 TD; 83 receiving yards, 6.2 per target)
Prince-Tyson Gulley (5'10, 192, Jr.) (481 rushing yards, 4.7 per carry, 5 TD; 187 receiving yards, 5.4 per target, 1 TD)
FB: Clay Cleveland (6'1, 226, Jr.)
Carl Cutler (6'3, 251, Sr.) (5 rushing yards; 32 receiving yards, 6.4 per target)
After a 2-4 start, Syracuse has inched back to 5-5, in part because it feels more comfortable leaning on the running game. Jerome Smith averaged just 3.1 yards per carry in early losses to Northwestern and USC, and he didn't get a lot of carries against Minnesota (loss), Pittsburgh (narrow win) or Rutgers (loss) -- combined, he carried 34 times for a solid 180 yards. But in the last four games, Smith's load has increased. He is averaging 21.5 carries for 130 yards in the last four weeks, and in the same span of time, Prince-Tyson Gulley is pitching in 12.5 carries and 66 yards per game. A good passing game and an improving offensive line have opened things up for the running backs, and they are taking advantage. Syracuse's offense is much more balanced now than it was a month or two ago.
WR-X: Alec Lemon (6'2, 204, Sr.) (745 receiving yards, 10.1 per target, 5 TD)
Christopher Clark (5'11, 158, Jr.) (112 receiving yards, 6.2 per target, 2 TD)
TE: Beckett Wales (6'3, 230, Jr.) (315 receiving yards, 7.9 per target, 1 TD)
David Stephens (6'3, 231, Sr.) (76 receiving yards, 7.6 per target)
In my head this week, I've been thinking of Syracuse as, basically, a less extreme version of Tennessee. The passing game is good, but not quite as good as Tennessee's. The defense is iffy, but not nearly as iffy as Tennessee's. (While we're at it, the orange isn't quite as stark, either.) That comparison goes especially for the receiving corps, which is of the same "two scary receivers and a solid tight end" makeup as the Vols. But while Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales aren't quite as terrifying as Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, and while Beckett Wales has not been as productive as Mychal Rivera, this group is not to be taken lightly.
Here are Alec Lemon's combined stats from the Minnesota, UConn, Cincinnati and Louisville games: 40 targets, 33 catches, 549 yards (13.7 per target), four touchdowns. Damn. Lemon has improved on what was a pretty damn good junior season (834 yards, 8.7 per target), and he is a fantastic No. 1. What makes him scarier is the fact that you have to account for No. 2, as well. Marcus Sales showed incredible potential in the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl (five catches for 172 yards and three touchdowns versus Kansas State) but was suspended in 2011 for a drug arrest. Sales does disappear at times -- against UConn, Louisville and Cincinnati he caught just six of 19 passes for 62 yards -- but his ceiling is high. In early-season losses to USC and Northwestern, he caught 19 of 25 passes for 221 yards and three scores. And with Lemon laying the wood most Saturdays, Nassib doesn't have to count on Sales to show up big, which is nice.
LT: Justin Pugh (6'5, 297, Sr.) (31 career starts, 6 in 2012, 2011 1st All-Big East)
Andrew Phillips (6'5, 268, Sr.) (1 career start)
Unlike Alabama and other teams Mizzou has faced, Syracuse has had to deal with at least a little bit of turnover on the offensive line. Its best lineman, Justin Pugh, was sidelined for the first four games with a shoulder injury. That's the only issue they've faced, but since Pugh's return this has been a rock solid unit. After giving up 10 sacks and a 6.3 percent sack rate versus USC, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Rutgers, Syracuse has allowed just three sacks and a 2.2 percent sack rate in the last four games. An improved run game doesn't hurt in that regard, and lord knows the line has had a part to play in that, too.
This is a good line, but Tennessee's was better. I am confident enough in Mizzou's defensive line to think that Mizzou has the advantage here, even if it is not as big an advantage as I would have preferred, though.
DE: Brandon Sharpe (6'1, 255, Sr.) (25.0 tackles, 13 TFL, 5.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 QBH)
Robert Welsh (6'3, 259, Jr.) (3.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL)
Brandon Sharpe almost literally had a season in a game earlier this year. Against Pitt, Sharpe logged an incredible six tackles for loss and four sacks among seven solo tackles. In the season's other nine games, he has managed seven tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He and Markus Pierce-Brewster make for an interesting pair of ends, but lord knows Mizzou has faced a lot of "interesting" ends this year. Against the run, Syracuse has been solid. The Orange rank 34th in Adj. Line Yards despite a general lack of size. The Orange are quick and aggressive, which has been a pretty successful combination against Mizzou's rotating cast of offensive linemen this year.
Syracuse leans on its linebackers, another undersized unit, for pressure quite a bit. Marquis Spruill missed some time this year, but when he's 100 percent, he and Dyshawn Davis are used very aggressively. They're good for a couple of TFLs per game, and Davis has proven himself solid in pass coverage as well. As you would expect given their size-to-speed ratio, this is a defense that specializes in finishing you off on passing downs. The Orange rank just 70th in Standard Downs S&P+ but are 30th on passing downs. Mizzou might not be able to pull off the same high-wire act it accomplished last week, falling into quite a few 2nd-and-9's or 3rd-and-10's and converting.
Across the board this unit is decent. Certainly not great, but not terrible. The Orange have a couple of experienced safeties in Shamarko Thomas (who is almost as big as middle linebacker Siriki Diabate) and Jeremi Wilkes, and corner Keon Lyn is pretty aggressive.
Bottom line: A good offense will move the ball on Syracuse, and a bad one probably won't. Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater did pass for 424 yards (8.7 per attempt) without a sack last week. Pitt receiver Devin Street did catch 10 of 10 passes for 130 yards against Syracuse. USC's Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal did rush for 170 yards on 26 carries. But ... what type of offense does Missouri have? The answer has changed a few times this year. Mizzou has spent a good portion of the season with a bad offense with injured pieces getting replaced each week. But in the last two weeks, we have seen signs that a good offense might not be far away. If MIzzou is mediocre, this is a dogfight. But if the Tigers build off of what we saw in the second half and in overtime against Tennessee, then they could win comfortably.
PK: Ross Krautman (5'7, 161, Jr.) (11-19 FG)
Ryan Norton (5'11, 181, Fr.)
P: Jonathan Fisher (6'1, 209, So.) (38 punts, 39.0 average, 13 I20, 11 FC)
Riley Dixon (6'5, 205, So.) (3 punts, 36.3 average)
KR: Jeremiah Kobena (6'0, 179, So.) (11 returns, 19.2 average)
Wayne Morgan (5'10, 191, Fr.) (2 returns, 12.0 average)
PR: Ritchy Desir (5'11, 179, So.) (16 returns, 5.8 average)
Steven Rene (5'7, 180, Jr.) (8 returns, 0.1 average)
This is the exact opposite of a scary special teams unit. The Orange rank 98th in Special Teams F/+, and it isn't hard to see why. The kicking game is alright, the punting is egregious (112th in Net Punting), and the return game is mostly nonexistent. If Mizzou loses the special teams battle, it blew a major opportunity.
Mizzou could soooooooooo lose this game. I don't think the Tigers will, mind you, but if we see more of the team that polluted the field in the first half of the Tennessee game, then Syracuse will make them pay, and they might not blow further chances like Tennessee did. But while it could take a bit, I do see Mizzou eventually pulling away. Avoid a Senior Day emotional funk at the beginning of the game, adjust defensively (as Dave Steckel is particular adept at doing), and even if it takes 45 or 60 minutes, close the door on the Orange and move to 6-5. Please, please move to 6-5.