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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. 80: Syracuse

Hi, Otto! Why the big smile? You like Doug Marrone and the Orange to win six games?

When does four wins feel good? When you’re Syracuse, winners of a combined 10 games over the past four years. When does a four-win season land you such goodwill? When you’re Doug Marrone, and you’re replacing Greg Robinson. Talk about some small shoes to fill: Marrone may have led the Orange to only four wins in his debut season, but that total matched the highest output of the Greg Robinson era. Syracuse also scored 254 points, a program high since 2004, and allowed nearly a touchdown less per game than in 2008. Hold onto your hat: we may be seeing a Syracuse renaissance.

Conference
Big East

Location
Syracuse, N.Y.

Nickname
Orange

Returning starters
13 (3 offense, 10 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 103

2009 record
(4-8, 1-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 97

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at Akron
  • Sept. 11
    at Washington
  • Sept. 18
    Maine
  • Sept. 25
    Colgate
  • Oct. 9
    at South Florida
  • Oct. 16
    Pittsburgh
  • Oct. 23
    at West Virginia
  • Oct. 30
    at Cincinnati
  • Nov. 6
    Louisville
  • Nov. 13
    at Rutgers
  • Nov. 20
    Connecticut
  • Nov. 27
    Boston College

Last year’s prediction

The way I see it: If Syracuse won three games last fall, shouldn’t it at least match that total in 2009? I’m willing to say yes – even with a tough non-conference slate – but I’d be shocked if the Orange won more than four games. The team lacks playmakers and any semblance of depth, a result of poor recruiting by Robinson and his staff. Quarterback, despite adding Paulus, will be a major concern for Marrone. For this reason, you may not see the offense in 2009 that he would eventually like to run at Syracuse; give him a season or two to bring in recruits he believes better fit his system. The defense will also be a concern. Over all, I see a 3-9 record, with the potential for two wins in Big East play. As long as the Orange feels a sense of progress, they will be happy. This program is still two years away from competing for a postseason berth.

2009 recap

In a nutshell The Orange beat a pair of bowl teams, including a Rutgers team then ranked in the Top 25, and suffered a pair of losses by a field goal or less. Obviously, Syracuse was far more competitive – a good omen for the program’s future under Marrone. Seeing as no one – I believe literally no one, in this case – expected Syracuse to reach bowl eligibility in Marrone’s first season in charge, it’s hard not to look at the 2009 season as a success. Will the progress carry over to 2010?

High point A thorough domination of then-No. 25 Rutgers on Nov. 21. The Orange dominated the time of possession, controlling the ball for more than 40 minutes of the 31-13 win. For those who are unfamiliar with less recent Big East history, Syracuse used to do this to Rutgers every year. A lot of teams used to do this to Rutgers every year.

Low point Some ugly losses – by 21 or more to five conference opponents – but the ugliest of the bunch was a 10-9 loss at Louisville. If ever a game made you want to wash your eyes out with soap, this was it.

Tidbit Syracuse’s recent slide has allowed West Virginia to leapfrog past the Orange as the Big East leader in career victories. Syracuse now has 678 wins to West Virginia’s 682; after Paul Pasqualoni was fired following the 2004 season, the Orange had 664 wins to West Virginia’s 631.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question in the comment field below; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:

Syracuse is one of 14 programs to have played in a B.C.S. bowl game and reached the Sweet 16 of the men’s basketball tournament in the same academic year. The Orange did so in 1997-98, losing to Duke in the Sweet 16 and to Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. Can you name the remaining 13 programs to have done so?

Teams already spoken for: Navy (Shawn), Texas Tech (Freakville), Texas A&M (Dr. Norris Camacho), Virginia Tech (James), Wake Forest (jjtiller) and Washington (Dr. Klahn).

Former players in the N.F.L.

18 CB Will Allen (Miami), RB Curtis Brinkley (San Diego), OG Ryan Durand (Tennessee), FB Tony Fiammetta (Carolina), DE Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis), S Steve Gregory (San Diego), S Tanard Jackson (Tampa Bay), DT Arthur Jones (Baltimore), K Olindo Mare (Seattle), LB Jameel McClain (Baltimore), QB Donovan McNabb (Washington), OT Quinn Ojinnaka (Atlanta), S Anthony Smith (Jacksonville), WR Taj Smith (Indianapolis), OT Adam Terry (Indianapolis), WR David Tyree (Baltimore),

Arbitrary top five list

Ways to enjoy an orange
1. Freshly squeezed.
2. Peel and eat.
3. Via Tropicana.
4. Via Florida’s Natural.
5. Via Minute Maid.

Coaching

Doug Marrone (Syracuse ’85), 4-8 after one season 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. The Orange made meaningful improvements on both sides of the ball, though work obviously remains to be done before they can realistically play with the top half of the Big East. In that vein, the first step will be becoming more competitive in conference action; only one of Syracuse’s four wins came against Big East opposition. 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 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. This should help him manage the day-to-day operations involved with his job (especially recruiting), an area where Robinson was lacking. Another, more important distinction is Marrone’s history and familiarity with the program and its surrounding region. This will not only help with recruiting, but will aid Marrone in his quest to rebuild trust and satisfaction among a frustrated and restless fan base. His honeymoon period will likely last another season, barring a complete disaster, though the university expects Syracuse to be in yearly bowl contention beginning in 2011.

Players to watch

The offense will be better, but Syracuse needs Delone Carter at running back. Last year’s leading rusher — 1,021 yards and 11 touchdowns — is currently suspended from the team for a violation of team rules, leaving his availability come September in doubt. He should return, however, even if Marrone has been very adamant about his players remaining on the straight and narrow. Best case scenario: Carter is reinstated in the late summer, allowing him to round back into playing shape in time for the season opener. Worst case: Carter is suspended for the year, leaving juniors Antwon Bailey (312 yards, 4.7 yards per carry) and Averin Collier to carry the load. This pair will see a fair amount of snaps either way, but the offense needs Carter in order to excel.

The quarterback job falls to sophomore Ryan Nassib, who served in a backup role to Greg Paulus a year ago. Nassib was projected to start in 2009, in fact, before Marrone pursued and landed the one-year quarterback rental. The sophomore still earned plenty of playing time last fall, completing 36 of his 68 attempts for 422 yards and 3 scores in a secondary role. Now the unquestioned starter — redshirt freshman Charley Loeb is not ready — Nassib will have the liberty of not looking over his shoulder, unquestionably a factor last fall, as well as working with a strong offensive coaching staff. After taking over the play-calling duties from Rob Spence, Marrone will ask Nassib to throw the ball down field, something the team did very, very rarely in 2009.

Plenty of question marks at receiver. Junior Van Chew was able to break into the starting lineup thanks to a strong spring, moving past incumbent starter Marcus Sales. Chew has seen little playing time over his first two years, making only 10 receptions, while Sales led all returning receivers in yards (324) and touchdowns (3) last fall. Sophomore Alec Lemon (29 receptions for 295 yards) also returns, and currently holds the second starting spot. The position will also receive a boost from former Hofstra transfer Aaron Weaver, who has the best size of any pass-catcher on the roster. One thing this group does lack: a Mike Williams-type receiver, one able to take advantage of single coverage. Let’s see if someone steps up in September.

I’m upset that E.J. Carter is no longer with the team, as the would-be sophomore was dismissed from the program after opting not to participate in Syracuse’s season-ending activities. Yes, it’s upsetting. Yet it would be have been far, far more damaging if the Orange were to have lost either Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue, seniors who rank among the finest linebackers in the Big East. Smith provides Syracuse with a steady hand at middle linebacker: a team-best 82 tackles (10.5 for loss) and 6.5 sacks in only 10 games. Hogue gives the defense a disruptive presence on the strong side: 72 tackles (16 for loss) and 9.5 sacks, all one year after transition to the defensive side of the ball from running back. Hogue had minor knee surgery in the spring, but will be at 100 percent come the fall. Carter’s departure opens up the weak side spot, which will likely go to senior Ryan Gillum.

The defensive line will miss Arthur Jones at nose tackle, but I like the end combination of junior Mikhail Marinovich and sophomore Chandler Jones, particularly the latter. Marinovich moved into the starting lineup last fall after serving as a key reserve as a freshman; he made 20 tackles and 3 sacks. He’ll continue to progress as he adds size, as well as experience. Jones was superb in his first season of action: 52 tackles (10 for loss) and 1.5 sacks. He will challenge for Big East honors in his second season. Senior Andrew Lewis returns after starting all 12 games at tackle last fall, while fellow senior Bud Tribbey will attempt to fill Jones’s shoes on the nose; it helps that Tribbey started the final two games of 2009. Expect plenty of rotation on the interior of the line, as additional options include Cory Boatman, Ollie Haney and Anthony Perkins.

The secondary does not lack depth: Syracuse returns five players with starting experience. Senior Da’Mon Merkerson and sophomore Phillip Thomas (29 tackles, 2 interceptions) will again start at cornerback, while junior Kevyn Scott and sophomore Rishard Anderson will battle for the nickel back spot. Senior Mike Holmes (team-leading 3 interceptions), able to play both free safety — where he’ll start — and cornerback, will again lead the secondary. Marrone has options at strong safety: sophomore Shamarko Thomas (41 tackles, 6.5 for loss) currently stands atop the depth chart, but senior Max Suter (71 tackles), who made 10 starts last fall, will certainly earn meaningful snaps. A pretty good group.

Position battles to watch

Offensive line Two sure things up front: left guard Adam Rosner and center Ryan Bartholomew, both seniors. Bartholomew moves to center after starting at left guard last fall, though he did draw a pair of starting assignments at center as an injury replacement for the departed Jim McKenzie. Rosner moves to the left side after starting the final three games of last fall at right guard. The Orange also return senior Josh White, who started at both tackle spots last fall, but he’s been pushed into a secondary role due to the solid play of redshirt freshman Justin Pugh and junior Michael Hay, who will start at left and right tackle, respectively. White is scheduled to battle Pugh for starts on the blind side; Nick Speller, who started the final two games of 2009, left the program late last year. Hay, a JUCO transfer, has the clear edge at right tackle. This is largely due to depth at the position: youngsters Ian Allport and Andrew Phillips will grow in the system, but neither are ready for meaningful snaps in 2010. The most competitive battle may be occurring at right guard. Junior Andrew Tiller, who has slimmed down, leads the way, but Marrone could also turn to Jarel Lowrey, a converted defensive lineman, or junior Nick Lepak, who will be wasted lining up behind Bartholomew at center.

Game(s) to watch

Akron and Louisville are must-win games. A sweep of that pair – absolutely doable – will leave the Orange in solid position to at least top last season’s win total. Syracuse should view the first three weeks of November as the most winnable stretch of the conference season, as each of its four Big East opponents in October reached bowl play in 2009.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. What would Syracuse need to occur in order to reach six wins? Sweep Akron, Maine, Colgate and Louisville, as noted above; get steady quarterback play from Nassib, who should be able to perform without looking over his shoulder; have Delone Carter be reinstated to the team by September; and have unproven players step up along the offensive line and at receiver. I have no concerns about this defense, even if I’m saddened to see a talented underclassman E.J. Carter leave the program without reaching his full potential. Here’s the bad news: wins will be hard to come by from October on, minus the home date with the Cardinals. Recent Syracuse teams have folded in Big East action; this team, likely 3-1 through September, cannot afford to do so. 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.

Dream season Marrone brings the Orange to bowl play with a 7-5 season; the win output is the program’s most since winning 10 games in 2001.

Nightmare season Syracuse slides to 2-10, giving it at least eight losses for the sixth straight year and raising serious doubts about the program’s ability to ever – ever – win again.

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, which makes a very strong case for the Web’s best independent college football blog.

Tidbit (Twitter edition) I hate doing this, yet I do so once a week or so. Don’t forget you can follow Pre-Snap Read on Twitter. I’m at 340 followers right now; let’s try to get to 1,000 by August. I am world-renowned for the healthy interaction I have with all my followers: close, but not too close. Just right.

Up Next

Who is No. 79? Our next school’s new head coach didn’t have to move far to take his new position: roughly 207 miles, in fact.

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Comments

  1. Steve says:

    It’s Ollie Haney.

    But overall you are spot on with the analysis. The team is getting better overall on both sides of the ball. It is just playing short handed which will improve with one more recruiting class.

    The oline is starting to take on Marrone’s characteristics. The secondary is young but pretty good.

  2. john-nicholas says:

    are you sure about tennessee and mich state being in bcs bowls last calendar year?

    (bcs bowls = rose sugar orange fiesta bcs ncg)

    here’s my guess:
    kansas
    louisville
    wake forest
    maryland
    west va
    utah
    ohio st
    texas
    florida
    usc
    oklahoma
    ohio state
    lsu
    miami, fla

    Paul: My earlier post said any bowl, not B.C.S. bowl, so I mistakenly included Michigan State and Tennessee. Then I went to bed. Now it’s fixed. Still stands: 15 teams played in a B.C.S. bowl and went to the Sweet 16 in the same year.

    You have seven teams above. Solid start.

  3. David S. says:

    Well, Google Maps says it’ll cost your odometer 244 clicks to get from Cincinnati to South Bend. #79 seems a little low (high?) — but only a little given whom they’ve lost, and it’d be a great way to stimulate readership…

    Paul: I’d never do that, give me some credit. No, tomorrow is not the Irish. Keep thinking. Here’s a list of new hires. Should give it away:

    Akron, Rob Ianello
    Buffalo, Jeff Quinn
    Central Michigan, Dan Enos
    Cincinnati, Butch Jones
    East Carolina, Ruffin McNeill
    Florida State, Jimbo Fisher
    Kansas, Turner Gill
    Kentucky, Joker Phillips
    Louisiana Tech, Sonny Dykes
    Louisiana-Monroe, Todd Berry
    Louisville, Charlie Strong
    Marshall, John “Doc” Holliday
    Memphis, Larry Porter
    Notre Dame, Brian Kelly
    San Jose State, Mike MacIntyre
    Tennessee, Derek Dooley
    Texas Tech, Tommy Tuberville
    UNLV, Bobby Hauck
    USC, Lane Kiffin
    USF, Skip Holtz
    Virginia, Mike London
    Western Kentucky, Willie Taggart

  4. 1 florida
    2 ohio state
    3 texas
    4 usc
    5 oklahoma
    6 lsu
    7 wisconsin
    8 usc
    9 maryland
    10 west virginia
    11 utah
    12 pitt
    13 Illinois
    14 tennessee
    15 kansas

    i’ll write on ohio state

    Paul: Still short, even if I count U.S.C. twice.

  5. i assume you’re not counting syracuse because they played in the bcs and sweet 16 in consecutive years, not the same year.

    Paul: No, I’m counting them. In the same academic year, so in Syracuse’s case, football in the fall of 1997 and basketball in the spring of 1998.

  6. i see why i’m stumped – in 1997-1998, the orange bowl was not a BCS bowl

  7. john-nicholas says:

    assumptions:

    bcs started 1998/1999

    academic year fall/spring

    the list:

    1 ohio state
    2 oklahoma
    3 west virginia
    4 kansas
    5 usc
    6 florida
    7 texas
    8 utah
    9 tennessee
    10 wisconsin
    11 illinois
    12 maryland
    13 oregon

  8. dr says:

    Your top 5 is incorrect. You forgot to include Orange Julius….or if you have ever spent time in Atlanta, the Frosted Orange would be in there as well.

  9. David says:

    Next up is Marshall? Doc Holliday from Morgantown to Huntington WV, go Herd!

  10. Dick Preuss says:

    keeno got hosed.

  11. Noefli says:

    1) Syracuse
    2) Ohio State
    3) Florida
    4) Wisconsin
    5) Tennessee
    6) Illinois
    7) Maryland
    8) Oregon
    9) Oklahoma
    10) Utah
    11) West Virginia
    12) Texas
    13) USC
    14) Kansas

    Paul: Close enough, nice job. You missed U.C.L.A. and Kentucky, added Texas and Oklahoma. Because of the early confusion, you deserve the win. List your team choice below.

  12. the trivia question marks the first PSR scandal.

  13. Noefli says:

    Hook ‘Em

    Paul: Public Enemy No. 1, got it. You’ll have plenty of time to get your preview ready, I don’t think I’ll be getting to the Horns for quite some time.

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