Clemson faces unknowns at Syracuse

All eyes are squarely focused on Oct. 19, when Florida State travels to Clemson in what everybody anticipates will be another battle between unbeaten top 10 teams with national championship aspirations.

But coaches always warn it is dangerous to look ahead. In this case, that mantra fits. The clichéd trap week is here, for both programs. Eighth-ranked Florida State must face an unbeaten Maryland team on Saturday in Tallahassee, while No. 3 Clemson travels to play its first game in the Carrier Dome against improving Syracuse.

Both teams should win, but as folks have learned across the ACC, there are never guarantees. Just last week, Florida State struggled at Boston College. And Clemson looked ragged the last time it went out on the road in a too-close-for-comfort win at NC State.

What makes this week perhaps more difficult for Clemson is preparing for the unknown. This is Syracuse’s ACC opener. Coaches are not nearly as versed in what Syracuse likes to do as they are with all the other ACC teams on their schedules. Playing in the Carrier Dome presents an X-factor as well.

“Typically when you’re looking up for passes, when you’re catching punts, when you’re catching kicks, all of those things it’s totally different when you’re inside because the lighting is over the top of you as opposed to off to the side and things like that,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “It is an adjustment as opposed to playing outside, which is what you do every single day in practice and most games.”

Swinney did note that playing in the Georgia Dome in the bowl game last season should help, along with having an indoor practice facility to help simulate conditions. But unlike the Georgia Dome, the Carrier Dome is smaller and the crowd is closer to the field. Plus, there is no air conditioning inside, causing hot and humid conditions early in the season.

Not only that, Syracuse has pulled a few upsets in the Dome over the last few seasons, completely shutting down the likes of Geno Smith and Teddy Bridgewater, widely regarded as among the best quarterbacks in the country when they played the Orange. Last year, Louisville came in unbeaten and ranked No. 9 in the nation. Syracuse won 45-26. In 2011, Syracuse beat No. 15 West Virginia just as badly, 49-23.

The architect behind those two defensive efforts was coordinator Scott Shafer, who is now the Syracuse head coach. Do you know how much pride he takes in those two victories? During his introductory news conference last January, he specifically mentioned the way the Orange proved their doubters wrong in those two games:

"West Virginia came in here a year ago,” he said then. “They were talking. We locked them in the dome and beat the hell out of them. Louisville this year when we played the unstoppable team and (we) didn't have a chance in hell to play against that team and our kids got after it and the crowd was rumbling in that Dome."

Swinney says his staff will study some tape from last year because four games from 2013 is not enough to evaluate tendencies and scheme. What Syracuse did to Louisville should be on that list. In addition, Swinney said he has gotten input from several coaches on staff who have either coached in the Dome or played in it. Unlike most weeks, his group might do a walk-through at the Carrier Dome when it arrives on Friday to get a better idea for the environment it will face Saturday afternoon.

Still, the focus all week will be on Clemson’s scheme and Clemson’s game plan, to make sure the Tigers have the type of consistent effort that led to a 56-7 win over Wake Forest.

“I think our guys will be excited about it,” Swinney said. “It’s a new place. I’ve never been there. I’m excited about going up there. I’ve seen Syracuse on TV a million times, but we look forward to getting up there. We’ve got to be a good road team. It doesn’t matter where you go, that’s just part of it. You've got to play well on the road. We've got one win under our belt on the road and we played OK. Hopefully we can go on this road trip and play a little better. That’ll be our objective.”