2014 Opponent Rating: Syracuse

Why do we rank Syracuse No. 10 among Notre Dame’s 12 opponents in 2014?

Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer debuted with a 7-6 mark in 2013, including a bowl win over Minnesota.

We divided the 2014 Notre Dame schedule into four sections: First, the team most capable of making the new four-team College Football Playoff. Second is the 50-50 games, third is the upset specials, and finally the games where Notre Dame will be a prohibitive favorite by probably at least two and even three or more touchdowns.

Syracuse joins Rice and Purdue as the three teams in the final category. What is interesting is they are three of Notre Dame’s first four opponents in 2014, with the exception being Michigan at home Sept. 6. That provides the Irish an excellent opportunity to finish unbeaten by the end of September for only the second time since 2003.

Furthermore, after playing Purdue in the Shamrock Series game at Indianapolis Sept. 13, Notre Dame will have a bye week Sept. 20 before taking on the Orange Sept. 27 at East Rutherford, N.J.

Second-year Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer welcomes back seven starters on both offense and defense from last year’s 7-6 team, but the Orange were badly outgunned during 2013 losses to Florida State (59-3), Georgia Tech (56-0) and Clemson (49-14).

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Top running back Jerome Smith, who rushed for 2,085 yards the past two seasons, turned pro rather than returning for a fifth year, and backup Prince-Tyson Gulley (456 yards) also is gone. However, the Orange — which totaled 194.8 yards per game last season — still is expected to be productive on the ground with the return of dual-threat quarterback Terrel Hunt.

Last year, the sophomore Hunt shared time with Drew Allen before asserting more control and consistency. He capped off his season with a strong performance in a 21-17 come-from-behind bowl victory versus Minnesota. Hunt completed 19 of 29 passes for 188 yards against the Golden Gophers and rushed 15 times for 74 yards and two scores, including the game winner near the final minute. He finished with 1,638 yards passing, completing 61.2 percent of his throws, and 500 yards rushing that averaged 4.7 yards per carry.

Defensively, the Orange were feast or famine. In their seven victories, they yielded only 11.1 points per game. In their six defeats, the total ballooned to 42.0 points per contest, including a 48-27 loss to Northwestern, a team the Irish host in November. The headline performer returning on that side of the ball is free safety Durell Eskridge, who averaged 6.5 tackles per game, picked off four passes and was third-team All-ACC.

Notable Fact
The 21-17 Texas Bowl win over Minnesota marked the first time since 1995-96 Syracuse has won bowl games in consecutive years. However, it has not finished in the Associated Press top 25 since 2001 (14th), and has posted a 58-88 record since then, with each of the last 12 seasons resulting in at least five losses.

This is a program comparable to Notre Dame’s 2013 Pinstripe Bowl foe Rutgers. It has its moments but is not in the same recruiting pool as Notre Dame. This year’s Syracuse 24-man class (with one four-star) was ranked 49th by 247Sports, appreciably better than the No. 70 ranking in 2013.

The last time the two teams met was 2008, when 2-8 Syracuse, which had just fired head coach Greg Robinson, rallied from a 23-10 fourth-quarter deficit to shock the Irish 24-23 in Notre Dame Stadium. The upset knocked Notre Dame out of a Gator Bowl bid, and Irish head coach Charlie Weis’ fate was likely sealed after that game despite being brought back for 2009.

We’re not anticipating a second such stunner in six years. If the Syracuse defense shows up, then it should be competitive the way Rutgers was versus the Irish in December.

Tomorrow: The ninth-toughest opponent, on paper — one of our four teams with “upset special” potential.

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