Two ACC Atlantic Division teams went on the road last week and thumped an overmatched opponent with impressive performances on both sides of the ball. The surprise, perhaps, is that those two teams were NC State and Syracuse.
Why were those strong performances such a revelation?
Syracuse lost three of four true road games last year. Each of the losses was by at least three touchdowns, and the Orange allowed 48 points or more in all three. Syracuse’s opener this season was a double-OT win over FCS Villanova.
NC State hadn’t won a road game by more than a field goal since 2011. It needed furious second-half comebacks in each of its first two games against Georgia Southern and Old Dominion — two teams that were playing FCS ball as recently as 2012.
Neither team was heavily favored last week, yet the Orange thumped Central Michigan 40-3 and the Wolfpack upended USF 49-17. In both cases, it was cause for ample optimism for two beleaguered fan bases.
But here’s the question: As FSU and Clemson do battle for the title of Atlantic favorites this weekend, are either NC State or Syracuse ready to take a step up in class and join the fray atop the division?
For Syracuse, the narrative is fairly straightforward. Terrel Hunt missed the majority of the opener, but once he was back on the field against CMU, the Orange offense looked sharp. The up-tempo style worked well, Hunt was decisive in the pocket, and the ground game appeared varied and dynamic. The defense, meanwhile, has nine sacks in two games, marking the best two-game stretch for the Orange since 2009.
Syracuse has also won six of its past eight games dating back to last season, with one loss to eventual national champion Florida State and the other coming by just a single point to Pitt.
At NC State, the bulk of the excitement comes from quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who has been exceptional so far. Since his first-half interception in the opener against Georgia Southern, Brissett has been other-worldly, completing 72 percent of his throws, averaging 8.8 yards per attempt and tossing seven touchdowns without a turnover. Brissett leads the ACC in touchdowns and yards and is second only to Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas in passer rating.
More encouraging still for NC State: Only Pitt, with Heisman contender James Conner at tailback, has a higher rate of rushing touchdowns than the Wolfpack.
In other words, it’s hard to blame fans for being excited about the prospects for both programs right now. But all those impressive numbers so far should also be placed into context.
In fact, it was just last year that NC State started the season 3-1, with the lone loss a close game against eventual Orange Bowl champ Clemson. The three others were nonconference games against lower-tier teams. The results looked a lot like this season’s.
First three nonconference games, 2013: 3-0, combined score of 111-49
First three nonconference games, 2014: 3-0, combined score of 119-74
What followed for the Wolfpack was an 0-8 finish to the season.
Similarly, Syracuse looked awfully dominant against teams outside the Power 5 last year, too, beating Wagner and Tulane by a combined score of 106-17. In those games, Hunt was exceptional.
Hunt vs. Wagner and Tulane: 31-of-39 (80%) for 440 yards (11.3 ypa), 7 TD, 0 INT
Hunt in all other 2013 games: 136-of-234 (58%) for 1,192 yards (5.1 ypa), 3 TD, 8 INT
That’s not to rain on anyone’s early season parades, of course, but rather to add a pinch of reality to the proceedings. Road wins are nice and rarely come easily, so Syracuse and NC State deserve credit. It’s true, too, that Brissett has the Wolfpack offense running at a much more efficient pace than it did a year ago, and Hunt appears miles ahead of where he was in ACC play last season.
But bigger tests await. Syracuse gets Maryland this weekend and NC State gets Presbyterian. Neither game has gotten much traction in a week that features a host of intriguing ACC matchups. After that, though, things get interesting.
Syracuse’s next three are against Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State.
NC State’s next three are versus Florida State, Clemson and Boston College.
Much more so than last season, there is reason to believe those six games could provide a signature win or two for programs on the rise rather than lopsided losses for teams that can’t measure up with the cream of the crop.
We’ll know more by mid-October, of course, but the fun of September is that there are still plenty of places to find optimism, and with the way Syracuse and NC State performed last weekend, you don’t even have to look too hard.