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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 73: Syracuse

Confidence is contagious. So is a lack of confidence, as Greg Robinson and the Orange proved during his disastrous four-year stint at Syracuse. That Doug Marrone so quickly turned around this losing culture has been his greatest coaching feat, dwarfing the job he’s done on the field — though he’s done a terrific job with a team that has remained behind the eight ball in terms of talent and depth when compared to its fellow Big East brethren. The eight wins a year ago was only two less than Robinson posted over four years; the eight wins was a program-high since 2001, when the Orange went 10-3, and the program’s first winning season since that same year. The 288 points scored was a high since 2003; the 251 points allowed was a low since 2001. So Syracuse is on its way back, it’s safe to say.

Conference
Big East

Location
Syracuse, N.Y.

Nickname
Orange

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 80

2010 record
(8-5, 4-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 44

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Wake Forest
  • Sept. 10
    Rhode Island
  • Sept. 17
    at U.S.C.
  • Sept. 24
    Toledo
  • Oct. 1
    Rutgers
  • Oct. 8
    at Tulane
  • Oct. 21
    West Virginia
  • Oct. 29
    at Louisville
  • Nov. 5
    at Connecticut
  • Nov. 11
    South Florida
  • Nov. 26
    Cincinnati
  • Dec. 3
    at Pittsburgh

Last year’s prediction

I like Syracuse more than most, I imagine. Call me crazy: I think this team is a definite bowl contender. That I have the Orange battling for a bowl berth — though I think they’ll fall short — is a testament to the job Marrone has done rapidly rebuilding the program. Now, I think Syracuse is a year away: the team is still short of the 85 scholarships allotted to each F.B.S. program, though Marrone, despite some attrition, will have a far deeper roster in 2010 than in his debut season. I like the direction of the program. I think this team is close. Let’s give Marrone one more year to show progress, one more year to continue to add talent to a depleted roster, and the Orange will be bowl bound in 2011. Remember: as Syracuse plays two F.C.S. teams, it will need to win seven games to guarantee a bowl trip.

2010 recap

In a nutshell The defense was awesome. The offense? Not so great. But good enough, when taken in conjunction with this defense, though the scoring needs to improve if the Orange want to take the next step up the Big East ladder. For 2010, it was enough to just sit back and watch the defense do its thing: seventh nationally in yards allowed per game (300.3), seventh nationally against the pass (164.2 yards per game) and 17th in scoring (19.3 points per game), this group got it done on almost a weekly basis. Yeah, there were slip-ups against Washington and Pittsburgh and a lackluster showing in a bowl win over Kansas State, but those were the lone outliers in a year defined by vintage-era Syracuse defense. And yes, mark the words bowl and win in that previous sentence.

High point A 6-2 start. The Orange stumbled a bit down the stretch, losing three of four to end the regular season before getting back in the win column with that 36-34 Pinstripe Bowl victory over the Wildcats. But the 6-2 start had Syracuse right on the verge of bowl eligibility heading into November, which it clinched by beating Rutgers, 13-10, on Nov. 13.

Low point A 23-6 loss to Connecticut on Nov. 20. A win there would have seen Syracuse in a three-way tie with Pittsburgh and West Virginia atop the Big East standings to end the season. The story was familiar: a stingy defense undermined by an offense that lacked big-play ability.

Tidbit Last week’s Army preview had a brief item on Douglas MacArthur, the legendary general-statesman-football fan who loved his Cadets nearly as much as he loved his country, it seems. Nolan Weidner at The Post-Standard, the place to be for Syracuse football news, had a great piece about MacArthur’s pitch to Floyd Little, who eventually chose the Orange, not the Cadets, because of a promise he made to Syracuse great Ernie Davis prior to his death in 1963. According to Little, Syracuse’s new special assistant to the athletic director, MacArthur brought the then-high school senior to his hotel room at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria, where he introduced Little to local black sports stars like Elston Howard and Roy Campanella. MacArthur, Little continued, told him that if he attended West Point he’d “probably be the first African-American general in the history of the Army.” Little did not take MacArthur up on his offer, though that’s probably the greatest recruiting story I’ve ever heard.

Tidbit (road games edition) Syracuse loved playing on the road, which reflects very positively on Marrone and his team’s preparation. How good were the Orange away from home? The Orange won five road games all together, a program-first since 1992 and only the second time Syracuse has done so in 22 years. Syracuse also won four straight on the road in the Big East — South Florida, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Rutgers — for the first time in program history. Up next? Winning on the road and at home. Strong analysis.

Tidbit (freshmen edition) More nice news for the future of Syracuse football: the Orange played 15 true freshmen in 2010, the fourth-highest total in the country. Only Air Force, Florida and Tennessee played more. Oklahoma State, U.N.L.V. and Florida State were the only other schools to play at least 13 true freshmen, which means that six of the seven most freshmen-heavy teams in the country went to bowl play in 2010.

Former players in the N.F.L.

19 CB Will Allen (Miami), RB Curtis Brinkley (San Diego), LB Keith Bulluck (New York Giants), RB Delone Carter (Indianapolis), OG Ryan Durand (Tennessee), FB Tony Fiammetta (Carolina), DE Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis), S Steve Gregory (San Diego), LB Doug Hogue (Detroit), S Tanard Jackson (Tampa Bay), DT Arthus Jones (Baltimore), K Olindo Mare (Seattle), LB Jameel McClain (Baltimore), QB Donovan McNabb (Washington), OT Quinn Ojinnaka (New England), S Anthony Smith (Green Bay), LB Kelvin Smith (Dallas), WR Taj Smith (Indianapolis), WR Mike Williams (Tampa Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Washington Redskins receivers
1. Art Monk (1980-93).
2. Charley Taylor (1964-77).
3. Hugh Taylor (1947-54).
4. Bobby Mitchell (1962-68).
5. Gary Clark (1985-92).

Coaching

Doug Marrone (Syracuse ’85), 12-13 after two seasons at Syracuse. Taking into account the mess Marrone inherited from his predecessor, reaching four wins in his debut season was a good sign for the future of the program under his watch. That the Orange wont eight games last fall speaks volumes about the job he has done rapidly rebuilding one of the nation’s worst B.C.S. conference programs, leading Syracuse from rock-bottom to a very successful mid-tier Big East finish. Marrone returned to Syracuse after spending the previous seven seasons in the N.F.L., first as the Jets’ offensive line coach (2002-5), next as the Saints’ offensive coordinator and offensive line coach (2006-8). While the New Orleans job marked his first experience as a play-caller on any level, Marrone’s offenses ranked annually among the top units in the N.F.L.; in 2008, they led the league in total (410.7 yards per game) and passing offense (311.1 per game). Even with this last stop, most of Marrone’s experience has come as an offensive line coach. In addition to his work on the professional ranks, Marrone spent one season each at Tennessee and Georgia and five years at Georgia Tech working either with the tight ends or the offensive line. This is one area where Marrone splits from Greg Robinson: while his predecessor had very little experience in the college ranks, Marrone cut his teeth – and developed his coaching style – in the F.B.S., which has helped him manage the day-to-day operations involved with his job, an area where Robinson was lacking. All told, Marrone is everything Robinson was not.

Players to watch

Ryan Nassib did some things well: avoiding turnovers was certainly one. The senior tossed only eight interceptions a year ago, doing a nice job protecting the football in an offense where such care was a prerequisite for the starting role. That wasn’t all Nassib did, but it certainly was his most important quality. He’ll be asked to do more in 2011, and probably is ready to take the next step: Nassib will have another year of experience under his belt, another year in this system, and that is reason enough to expect more. Perhaps the Nassib we saw in the bowl win — 13 of 22 for 239 yards and 3 scores — will show up more in 2011; perhaps the Nassib we saw for much of the second half of the year will stay home.

Four big guys return up front, led by junior left tackle Justin Pugh, a second-team all-Big East pick a year ago. Pugh’s the anchor of a group that did a fine job on the ground, allowing Syracuse not to just to move the ball early but control it late. The line definitely improved in 2010 when compared to the handful of years prior, but there’s still more work to be done —  especially in protecting the quarterback, an area where this group struggled a season ago.

Losing center Ryan Bartholomew hurts. His replacement, Macky MacPherson, has great bloodlines — his grandfather is coaching great Dick MacPherson — but lacks prototypical size, though what he lacks in size he makes up for with intelligence, from all accounts. But he’ll be under the spotlight playing in the middle of the line, so MacPherson must deliver. So must the three remaining starters back in the fold: junior left guard Zach Chibane and seniors Andrew Tiller and Michael Hay at right guard and tackle, respectively. As at quarterback, the line must be more consistent.

Antwon Bailey assumes the lead role at running back after spending the last three seasons in a reserve role, making the odd start now and then but finding a home as Syracuse’s top third down back. It’s as a receiver that Bailey’s really made his biggest mark: he brings 62 career catches into his final season, a school record for a running back. Whether he can take the pounding associated with a 200-carry season remains to be seen, though Bailey did carry the ball 114 times for 554 yards a season ago. More will be taken on his 5’7-inch, 200-pound frame in 2011, and Bailey’s health is a key factor in this ground game’s ability to continue to rack up yardage. Sophomore Prince-Tyson Gulley, who led the way on kick returns a year ago, will be Bailey’s backup.

The Orange bring back leading receiver Van Chew (41 receptions for 611 yards and 5 scores), but the big question at the position is whether Marcus Sales can maintain the torrid play that lifted him out of irrelevance into a major role in this passing game. A non-factor through the first week of November — 6 catches for 39 yards, though he had a big touchdown against U.S.F. —  Sales posted 21 grabs for 375 yards and 3 scores over his last four games, highlighted by a 5-catch, 172-yard showing in the bowl win over Kansas State. If Sales can keep it up, Syracuse might be more balanced offensively. Junior Alec Lemon (32 for 397, 4 scores) rounds out the top three at the position. Tight end Nick Provo (33 for 365) is one of the Big East’s best pass-catchers at the position.

You’ll see new faces at defensive tackle, linebacker —  see below —  and cornerback. It will be very difficult for Syracuse to again finish in the top seven nationally in defense, it’s safe to say. But there are some nice returning pieces, some young talent and a nice mix of athleticism at certain spots, so it’s not as if Syracuse is going to revert to its old ways defensively. It’s still something to watch: the Orange lost as much as any other top 10 defense from a year ago.

The heart of last year’s defense was its pair of senior linebackers. In 2011, the heart of the defense are two standout ends, a duo that might constitute that finest defensive pairing in the Big East. It’s time for senior Mikhail Marinovich and junior Chandler Jones to step into the limelight: they combined for 87 tackles (13.5 for loss) and 7 sacks a year ago, playing in the shadows of but benefiting from the presence of the departed linebacker pair. Jones has been a presence since his early days on campus; Marinovich has followed suit, and both seem poised for superb final seasons.

The situation is far more cloudy inside. At end, the Orange can simply insert Jones and Marinovich and watch the big plays roll in. At tackle, the Orange are in a desperate search for answers. There’s just a troubling lack of size: at 269 pounds, sophomore Jay Bromley is far too slight to stand up against the run at nose tackle. Senior Cory Boatman, who like Bromley holds a starting role heading into the summer, is a converted end with nice athleticism but not enough bulk to help beef up the run defense. Former JUCO transfer Deon Goggins has the size Syracuse needs inside, but after not playing in a single game last fall in his first year on campus it’s hard to know what sort of difference, if any, Goggins is going to make. Unfortunately, the dearth of options inside means more and more attention on the standout pair at end, which is not good news for this pass rush.

Syracuse won’t have the Big East’s pass defense, not with the potential for a downgraded pass rush and with a number of new faces at cornerback. At least the outlook is sunny at safety: Shamarko Thomas (67 tackles, 2 sacks) and Phillip Thomas (92 tackles, 4 for loss) — no relation — are still learning on the job, which is troubling news for opposing offenses that saw this duo make several big plays a year ago. They’ll solidify a defense that is going through a bit of a rebuilding period, providing steadiness along the back end.

The Orange need the help. Much will be expected of senior Kevyn Scott, who has started in the past but was limited a year ago due to injuries. He’s set to share starting duties with sophomore Keon Lyn, giving the Orange two bigger — both hover around 6’0 — defensive backs. But there’s just no depth at all, and an already worrisome situation could turn dire if either projected starter goes down to injury. How are the Orange going to combat the multiple-receiver sets at Cincinnati and West Virginia? It’s going to be tough.

Position battle(s) to watch

Linebacker The Orange lost all-Big East picks Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith, which causes severe damage to the front seven. Syracuse goes from deep and experienced here to neither, unfortunately: the Orange can call on sophomore Marquis Sprull in the middle but new faces will abound on the first and second steps of the depth chart. Sprull (51 tackles, 9 for loss) started on the strong side last fall but will move to the middle in 2011, supplanting Hogue. Like the departed pair, Sprull has the sort of athletic ability to be an all-conference pick. So the Orange are in fine shape in the middle but questionable on the outside, though senior Dan Vaughn was part of the linebacker rotation a year ago. He’ll take over on the strong side, with true freshman Dyshawn Davis a bit of a surprise starter on the weak side. Davis is yet another example of how arriving on campus a semester early can really benefit a newcomer: like Sprull in 2010, Davis was with the Orange during the spring, which allowed him to get a crash-course in this defense. If he can make the sort of impact Sprull made a year ago, Syracuse will be in far better shape. The second line of Dom Aneme, Lewellyn Coker and Siriki Diabate is woefully inexperienced; only Coker has seen game action, and that was mainly on special teams. You’re bound to have a drop-off when losing a pair like Hogue and Smith, but with a questionable front seven and a thin linebacker corps, you worry about the health of the Syracuse run defense.

Game(s) to watch

Syracuse needs to reclaim its home-field advantage, as four Big East games come at the Carrier Dome — seven games altogether come at home. Once again, the Orange will chase bowl eligibility down the stretch, as the schedule starts smoothly but turns far more difficult over the second half of the season. In particular, a home loss to Rutgers to open conference play would do significant damage to another bowl trip. Syracuse will have to wait until 2012 to welcome Connecticut’s Paul Pasqualoni back to the Carrier Dome.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell In all, I’m a little worried about an offense that must do more now that the defense is bound to take a step back. That’s the defining storyline associated with this year’s team, with a tough finish to the schedule coming in second. The Orange should keep that strong finish in mind during September and October, as the schedule does provide the opportunity for another hot start. But can Syracuse do enough offensively to keep pace with West Virginia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and South Florida — four teams that seem to be the best in the Big East, and four teams that should be improved offensively in 2011? That’s a major concern, and the reason why I have the Orange in the second half of the Big East, not the first. At least there’s a great coach leading the way: as in 2010, if the Orange do exceed expectations it will be because of Marrone, who has proved himself to be everything that Syracuse needed and more. In a conference that is lacking in proven coaches — at least coaches proven on this level — Marrone is a sure thing, and clearly a rising star in his profession. Can he get it done again in 2011? It will have everything to do with how he leads this offense, as noted above. Maybe Nassib’s added year of experience makes him the sort of passer the Orange need; maybe an added year of experience will turn this line into one of the Big East’s best. As elsewhere, we won’t know the answers until September. Marrone deserves the benefit of the doubt, perhaps, but the Orange have fewer question marks than the team’s in the top half of the Big East. A bowl team, perhaps, but not an eight-win team, in my mind.

Dream season Mathematically, the next logical step under Marrone is 12 wins — as in 12-0, perhaps playing for a national title. Let’s tone it down a bit: 10-2, 6-1 in the Big East, and in a B.C.S. bowl.

Nightmare season The Orange are not going back to 2-10 — not back to Robinson-level play — but with this schedule, three or four wins would be a massive disappointment.

In case you were wondering

Where do Syracuse fans congregate? With a loyal fan base, it is no surprise to see a number of options for following Syracuse football. The best independent site is Cuse Orange, followed closely by Cuse Confidential and Syracuse Fan. The football coverage at Syracuse.com is also top-notch. Of course, any mention of Syracuse football must include Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician.

Word Count

Through 48 teams 136,624

Up Next

Who is No. 72? The men’s basketball coach at tomorrow’s university is from a township whose high school gym served as the set for several key scenes in a late-1970s film starring a member of the basketball Hall of Fame.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Frank says:

    1907′s??

    Paul: Yeah, the one that starred Clara Bow and Dr. James Naismith? Remember? Sorry, it was supposed to say “late-1970s.”

  2. HW86 says:

    The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh and Dr. J?

  3. Matt Rob says:

    Kentucky (Calipari is from Moon).

    (Can I do a writeup of WVU?)

  4. Jarious says:

    I just hope you are talking Fast Break. Gabe Kaplan, Bernard King, Preacher & DC. Totally underrated movie.

  5. Eksynyt says:

    Looks like we have our second SEC team up next…it’s Kentucky.

  6. Steve says:

    I think the Cuse is in better shape on defense than you may think. Lynn and hopefully a healthy Rishard Anderson will bring size and athleticism to the corners. Jermey Wilkes made some key plays as a frosh at nickel. Depth in the secondary shouldn’t be a concern. The last two years a true frosh has been able to step in and deliver at LB. Cam Lynch could join Davis in that conversation. Scott Shafer’s defense is player friendly.

    All in all Cuse fans are finally excited to have a say in how the BE race will shape up. We love Marrone and the leadership he has given the program.

    Solid work as always Paul.

  7. Frank M says:

    CuseOrange has only 3-4 posters, and CuseConfidential is all but abandoned.

    SyracuseFan.com is alive and well.

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