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Advanced outlook: Clemson-Syracuse projections


by - Staff Writer -
Trevor Lawrence hasn't put up Heisman numbers yet but this week could show that side of this 2019 campaign.
Trevor Lawrence hasn't put up Heisman numbers yet but this week could show that side of this 2019 campaign.

Clemson’s recent series with Syracuse may be the prime example of how much projections and odds can go out the door when toe meets leather on kickoff.

Three-straight games, three-straight seasons with a starting QB going down to injury in the first half -- the last two certainly having an effect on Clemson’s gameplan in a series split home (27-23 Clemson win in 2018) and away (27-24 Syracuse win in 2017).

That hasn’t been the sole factor for closer games, the Orange have limited mistakes (one turnover in each game) and took advantage of Clemson’s (10 points off of three Tiger turnovers in 2018). Syracuse has used tempo to keep the Clemson defense off-balance, especially in its 2017 win, often snapping the ball before Tiger defenders were fully set. They rank 31st nationally in plays per game coming in (77.5; FBS opponents only per TeamRankings.com) after ranking second in the nation last year. Also key in the close calls and possibly a big difference this year -- now-graduated Syracuse QB Eric Dungey made big plays at big moments to keep the Orange in it, and in 2017, come out on top.

As Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney has had to point out this week — after an Orange blowout loss at Maryland — the 2017 Syracuse team wasn't particularly eye-catching either and still pulled off the upset, improving to 4-3 with the win and then proceeding to lose out for a 4-8 final tally. They entered as a 24-point underdog, which is where the odds started this week before pushing to around four touchdowns (27.5).

That all said, Clemson is a big favorite for a reason. Here’s how they shape up efficiency-wise through two games:

Efficiency ranks Offense Defense Special teams
CU SP+ ranks (No. 2 overall) 15 4 43
SYR SP+ ranks (No. 70 overall) 85 52 5
CU ESPN ranks (No. 5 overall) 18 2 83
SYR ESPN ranks (No. 74 overall) 87 57 36

(SP+ is a metric from ESPN's Bill Connelly, formerly of Football Outsiders and SB Nation, that combines ratings for the five factors of efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers. ESPN’s Football Power Index-based metric has similar statistical factors weighing together).

The defensive efficiency numbers are a little more forgiving for Syracuse -- probably because of just how many of the Maryland yards were totaled with the game in hand last week. By the Orange's game averages, they rank 97th in rushing defense, 103rd in passing defense, 102nd in scoring defense and 105th in third down defense. Back to the analytics realm, they are 109th in stuff rate (percentage of carries stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage) but 10th in sack rate, improving early on a top-25 finish in the stat last year (21st).

A Clemson defense rated in the top-5 by both the SP+ and ESPN’s efficiency metric meets a struggling Syracuse attack under the leadership of redshirt sophomore quarterback Tommy DeVito. He ranks 101st in ESPN’s QBR metric through two games. The lack of balance in the Orange offense has hurt, ranking 94th in rushing offense with almost 20 percent of their runs stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage (19.6 percent; 99th nationally) and little success in getting yardage on third and fourth-and-short (90th in power success rate).

In the projections, ESPN’s SP+ likes Swinney’s Tigers in a blowout just beyond the Vegas number, 44-16 Clemson. Football Outsiders’ FEI picks a slightly narrower margin (Tigers by 26.5).

Metrics outlook Prediction
SP+ projection 95% Clemson (Clemson by 28.2)
ESPN FPI 96.6% Clemson
FEI 91.6% Clemson (Tigers by 26.5)

Taking a look at Trevor

It’s early. Really early. So reading too much into a less-than-Heisman-esque start from Trevor Lawrence is an overreaction.

That said, he is just outside the top-20 in ESPN’s QBR through two weeks (22) -- and in the passing game-only, 87th in the NCAA’s efficiency stat (127.97).

By down, he has been most efficient on first down (148.27 rating) with five connections of 15 or more yards and three of his five completions of 25-plus yards. On second down, Lawrence has seen 20 of his 22 passes in the hands of a receiver -- 18 to those in his color jersey and two in the opponent’s at a 7.45 yards per pass clip.

Third-and-long (7+ yards) will be an area needing improvement going forward, carrying a 14.2 success rate* on pass attempts with one completion in seven attempts. Last year, Lawrence averaged 11.8 yards per pass with five touchdowns and no interceptions and had a 36.2 success rate in the same situations.

Rotoworld’s Derrik Klassen provided a nice look-back into the kind of game Lawrence is trying to play so far. For downfield throws, he is largely challenging opposing defenses with 50-50 balls to his talented arsenal of receivers. Some throws are working better than others early:

Lawrence finished 8th in ESPN’s QBR and 12th in passing efficiency as a true freshman and we should see him challenge for those kind of numbers again as a sophomore. And this week could very well be the start of that campaign.

(* Success rate on third down is measured as gaining the first down conversion or scoring; CFBStats.com used for Lawrence passing splits)

Texas A&M advanced box score notes

ESPN’s Bill Connelly went back and did an advanced box score for the Clemson-Texas A&M game:

# On the good side, Lyn-J Dixon posted a 64 percent success rate on his runs while averaging 7.18 yards per carry. Travis Etienne was held below 50 percent in the running game (44) but earned a winning grade in three of his four receptions (75 success rate). Safety Nolan Turner led the way in havoc rate (4) with a tackle for loss, two passes defended and a forced fumble.

# Texas A&M was held to 4.95 yards per pass overall and 3.17 per on standard downs^. Lawrence averaged just 6.1 yards per pass attempt on standard downs.

# The Tigers’ slow start is shown in an 18 percent success rate in the first quarter. After peaking in the second quarter efficiency-wise (63 success rate), that number slipped by double-digits by each period (third - 47 percent; fourth - 36 percent). Clemson’s best defensive work came around the halftime break, in the second (30 percent) and third quarter (33), struggling most with more reserves in with the fourth period (62).

(^ Passing downs are designated as second down with 8 or more yards to go or third/fourth down with five or more yards to go. All other situations are standard downs.)

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