- Time and date: Thursday, December 21 at 8:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN
- Location: FAU Stadium — Boca Raton, FL
- Spread: Syracuse (-3)
- Over/under: 55.5
- All-time series: South Florida leads, 8-2
- Last meeting: South Florida 45, Syracuse 20 — September 17, 2016
- Current streak: South Florida, 2 (2015-16)
- South Florida last bowl: 2018 Gasparilla Bowl, 38-20 loss to Marshall
- Syracuse last bowl: 2022 Pinstripe Bowl, 28-20 loss to Syracuse
- 2022 Boca Raton Bowl matchup: Toledo 21, Liberty 19
Setting the scene
Old Big East foes finally reunite in the Sunshine State.
South Florida and Syracuse shared the Big East from 2005-12 and squared off all eight years as joint members of the conference. In 2013, the programs diverged when South Florida remained in the rebranded AAC, while Syracuse fled to the ACC.
Both teams qualified for the postseason at 6-6, searching for a highly-coveted bowl victory. South Florida is making its first appearance since 2018 and seeking its first bowl hardware since 2017. Syracuse will compete in a bowl for just the third time in the last 10 seasons, aiming for its first bowl victory since 2018.
The 10th Boca Raton Bowl is the standalone bowl game on Thursday’s docket. It’s the first time either team has earned a bid to this annual December contest at FAU Stadium.
South Florida Bulls outlook
South Florida (6-6, 4-4 AAC) completed a tremendous turnaround effort in year one of the Alex Golesh era. The Bulls held an 18-game losing streak to FBS teams entering Week 4 of this season, and not only did that streak snap — they defeated five FBS opponents en route to their first bowl appearance in five years.
Signs of South Florida’s improvement were first evident when the Bulls entered halftime deadlocked at 3-3 with Alabama in Week 3. The next two weeks, South Florida rode that momentum and knocked off two conference competitors in Rice and Navy. The Bulls won three of their last five to clinch this long-awaited bowl eligibility, and they’ll return to Boca Raton where they played a 2022 home game against East Carolina due to evacuating Tampa for Hurricane Ian.
Golesh took over the reins after serving as the offensive coordinator of Tennessee’s high-powered, up-tempo offense in 2022. The 39-year old coach installed similar quirks into South Florida’s offense, making Tampa home to the fastest offense in college football. The Bulls averaged a nation-high 82.5 snaps per game against FBS competition this year, often forgoing substitutions and sprinting up to the line of scrimmage.
The systematic shift worked, as South Florida posted 30.8 points per game to attain its highest mark since the 2017 season. The on-field architect of the warp-speed offense is mobile quarterback Byrum Brown. Brown ranks sixth among QBs in rushing yards with 745 on the season. And that total would be magnificently higher if South Florida didn’t allow over 3.3 sacks per game, which ranks last in the AAC. However, this aspect improved as the season progressed and Brown took one sack or fewer in four of his last five outings.
Brown is not only a capable scrambler with a knack for extending plays, but the redshirt freshman possesses a lethal arm as well. The first-year starter surpassed 3,000 yards in the regular season with four different 300-yard performances, toting a respectable 23-to-11 touchdown to interception ratio. South Florida’s offense mainly runs through the versatile talents of No. 17, but other skill position players are set to play a major role in Boca Raton as well.
One is running back Nay’Quan Wright, who leads the team in rushing yards at 757. The 5’9”, 204 pound back was a consistent force all season, but South Florida might also implement a heavy dose of Michel Dukes, who had the hot hand in the season finale with his first 100-yard outburst in five collegiate seasons. Another skill position force to watch is wide receiver Sean Atkins, who is closing on 1,000 yards with 961 on the season. Atkins as South Florida’s overwhelmingly No. 1 pass catcher with 86 receptions in 2023 when the next closest Bull was Naiem Simmons with 35. Atkins, a former walk-on, is the single season recordholder for receptions and receiving yards in program history, and he’ll be making his final appearance with the Bulls in Boca Raton.
Offense is definitely the strength of South Florida because defensively, the team surrenders 34.9 points per game which is tied with USC and ULM for ninth-worst in the FBS. Yes, South Florida made a name for itself for dominating Alabama on this side of the ball, but the pressure generated that Saturday didn’t sustain throughout the year. The Bulls picked up 1.8 sacks per game (bottom 30 in the FBS) and were the only team to allow more than 300 passing yards per game — situated at dead last in the country.
Nickelback Daquan Evans is the primary name to watch on defense, as he proved his versatility with 3.0 sacks, 12.0 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups, and one interception — all while tied for second in total tackles on the team.
Syracuse Orange outlook
Syracuse (6-6, 2-6 ACC) experienced an all-too familiar trajectory. The Orange started 4-0 for the second consecutive year, but a 5-game losing streak transpired as soon as ACC play commenced. Syracuse rebounded with two November wins to claim back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2012 and 2013, and the final victory occurred after the firing of eighth-year head coach Dino Babers.
Syracuse already hired Babers’ successors in Fran Brown, who served this season as Georgia’s defensive backs coach. However, Brown won’t coach in this game and Syracuse will operate under the direction of Nunzio Campanile, a first-year tight ends coach. Campanile guided the Orange to a 35-31 win over Wake Forest in his only game acting as a college head coach, so Thursday night’s matchup won’t be completely unfamiliar territory for him.
The Orange endured quite a roller coaster season from 4-0 to 4-5 to 6-6, but the team can clinch an above-.500 record by taking care of business against South Florida. This season, taking care of business has been defined by one question: did Syracuse score at least 23 points? In the six games where that statement held true, Syracuse won. In the six other contests, the Orange lost.
Syracuse ranks 81st in the FBS in scoring offense at 25.5 points per game. They demonstrate a particular affinity for running the ball, exhibiting the 29th best rushing offense in the country while faring 115th in passing yards per game.
Quarterback Garrett Shrader will miss the game, leaving Syracuse’s quarterback situation unclear. He never attempted more than 30 passes in a single outing this year, but the 6’4” senior lit up opponents on the ground from time to time. He eclipsed the century mark on two occasions this year, notably rushing for 195 yards and four touchdowns in a September triumph over Purdue. Without Shrader, Syracuse is lended a hand in the run game by 1,000-yard tailback LeQuint Allen. Allen ended the regular season on a tear, accumulating at least 100 rushing yards in all four games in November. Although teams succeed the most against South Florida’s defense through the air, expect Syracuse to launch the night with the ACC’s third-leading rusher as the main source of offense.
When the Orange attack the air, Allen is the preferred target as well with a team-high 36 receptions. Vertically, the premier option is Damien Alford, who racked up 527 yards on 29 receptions in the regular season. Only 12 FBS teams pass at a less frequent rate than Syracuse, but the Orange could gain a considerable advantage in this department when factoring in South Florida’s 133rd passing defense rank.
Syracuse’s defense was hit-or-miss this year, yielding at least 31 points in six games but limiting opponents to 20 or fewer in the other six. Overall, it makes for the 52nd scoring defense, and the unit was fairly middle-of-the-road against the run and pass.
One thing the Orange executed at an above-average level was recording takeaways. Syracuse is in the top 25 in turnovers forced this year at 21, recovering 12 fumbles and picking off nine passes. Excelling in the turnover battle was a concerted team effort, and free safety Jason Simmons Jr. was a notable standout with a team-best two interceptions on the year, in addition to six pass breakups. Another player South Florida’s offense must be wary of is middle linebacker Marlowe Wax, who will likely keep an eye out for Byrum Brown as a scrambler. Wax is the only Syracuse defender with 100 tackles or 10 tackles for loss this year, and his four forced fumbles are unrivaled in the ACC.
Expect this one to wind up on the higher scoring side.
South Florida’s offense is capable of inflicting plenty of damage, but the defense certainly presents a concern — especially after allowing 56 points to non-bowl teams such as Florida Atlantic and UAB. The Bulls are particularly brutal on the back end and give up a slew of explosive plays through the passing game.
Syracuse’s strength isn’t necessarily through the air, but the Orange present a versatile offensive weapon in LeQuint Allen who can be dangerous as both a rusher and pass catcher. Expect Allen to get the Syracuse offense rolling, and the Orange emerge in Boca Raton in a matchup which sees no shortage of points.
Prediction: Syracuse 37, South Florida 29