The Orange (7-2, 4-2 ACC) are at their highest ranking (No. 13) in the AP Top 25 poll and since they were No. 11 in 1998, when Donovan McNabb was the starting quarterback.
Syracuse is also 13 in the College Football Playoff poll.
Without Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is now in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, Louisville is winless in the ACC at 0-6 with a 2-7 overall record. Coach Bobby Petrino has lost four recruits who have de-committed in the last few weeks as rumors have swirled about his future at Louisville.
Petrino has tried to keep a positive spin on his team, including after last week’s 77-16 loss at Clemson. Louisville lost its sixth straight game, its longest losing streak since dropping 10 in a row in the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
The Cardinals’ wins have come against Indiana State and Western Kentucky. They have lost to Alabama, Virginia, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Boston College, Wake Forest and Clemson.
“I didn’t feel like anyone gave up or anybody quit out there,” Petrino said after the Clemson game. “They kept competing.”
The offense is not producing without Jackson. In the Clemson game, new Louisville quarterback Jawon Pass passed for only 110 yards and threw two interceptions. Colin Wilson rushing for only 26 yards. Jaylen Smith was the top Louisville receiver with 63 yards on five catches.
Louisville’s defense ranks last in the ACC and 115th nationally allowing 462.8 yards per game. The Cardinals have allowed at least 38 points in each of their last four games, including the 77 to Clemson.
On the flipside, Syracuse is thriving mostly because of an offense that ranks No. 15 nationally with 478.2 yards per game. Senior quarterback Eric Dungey has emerged as an all-conference quarterback passing for 2,001 yards and rushing for 628. He has accounted for 23 touchdowns, 13 via the pass and 10 by the run.
Dungey also has not turned the ball over in the last two games.
“That’s what big-time quarterbacks do,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said. “That’s what the Mannings and all those quarterbacks do. They manage the game. I’m tickled pink about the way he’s playing.”
Senior receiver Jamal Custis is third in the ACC with 81.6 yards receiving per game. With 40 catches for 734 yards, Custis is averaging 18.4 yards per reception.
Of particular concern is Dungey being the Orange’s top rusher with junior Moe Neal the top running back gaining only 61.9 yards a game.
Overall, however, Babers likes how his team has prospered through their maturity in his three years as the head coach. The Orange had consecutive 4-8 seasons before the breakthrough they are experiencing this year with quality depth a major reason.
“I think that the young men, the senior class especially, are really taking care of their bodies,” Babers said during Monday’s press conference. “I see them at practice and they’re different.
“These guys are different — you can just tell they’re different. They understand what the word moderation means. Because of those things and what they want to achieve, I think that they’ve really taken care of themselves which has given them only a chance — only an opportunity to do something special. We’ll see. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. It just means they have a chance.”
With matchups ahead against No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 22 Boston College, Syracuse must guard against looking past Louisville. If the Orange run the table, they would be 10-2 and in position or a New Year’s Six bowl.
The Cardinals have defeated Syracuse four straight times, including a 56-10 rout last year at Louisville (albeit with Jackson).
On Sunday, Babers presented his team stats from Syracuse’s last two games against Louisville. Syracuse lost those two games by a combined score of 118-38, allowing 1,572 yards in the two losses.
“I told them that we play games one game at a time, and that we’re in third game of the second half of our season,” Babers said. “And they said OK.”