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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. 83: Syracuse

Syracuse enters its 22nd and final season as a member of the Big East with two outright conference championships to its name – in 1997 and 1998, thanks to Donovan McNabb. The Orange posted double-digit wins three times as a member of the Big East: 1991, 1992 and 2001. The program has notched a winning record in conference play only twice over the last decade: in 2004, during Paul Pasqualoni’s final season, and again in 2010. Since 2002, Syracuse has posted a 17-52 record during Big East play; this includes a 6-15 mark over Doug Marrone’s three years with the program. The Orange are 24-35-2 all-time against teams from the A.C.C., the university’s new home come 2013, and 2-8 against the A.C.C. since 2002. Get ready for the program’s final lap through the Big East as it prepares for life in its new conference – and I hesitate to call it a victory lap, because it’s been a long time since Syracuse had much of anything to crow about.

Conference
Big East

Location
Syracuse, N.Y.

Nickname
Orange

Returning starters
12 (5 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 73

2011 record
(5-7, 1-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 89

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Northwestern
  • Sept. 8
    vs. U.S.C. (in East Rutherford, N.J.)
  • Sept. 15
    Stony Brook
  • Sept. 22
    at Minnesota
  • Oct. 5
    Pittsburgh
  • Oct. 13
    at Rutgers
  • Oct. 19
    UConn
  • Oct. 27
    at U.S.F.
  • Nov. 3
    at Cincinnati
  • Nov. 10
    Louisville
  • Nov. 17
    at Missouri
  • Nov. 23
    at Temple

Last year’s prediction

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. Can Marroen get it done again in 2011? It will have everything to do with how he leads this offense. 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.

2011 recap

In a nutshell As of Oct. 22, I was fairly convinced that Syracuse was going to win the Big East. The night before, in front of a national audience, the Orange had dismantled then-No. 15 West Virginia, 49-23, thanks to a scoring barrage over the game’s final 25 minutes. That win left Syracuse at 5-2 overall, 1-1 in the Big East, heading into the stretch run. The stretch run saw the Orange drop five straight games – not only dropping this team out of the B.C.S. hunt but out of the postseason altogether. So what happened? Instead of examining what went wrong, simply remember this: Syracuse was never that good. The Orange were great in short spurts, such as during the second half against the Mountaineers, the second quarter against Toledo or the fourth quarter against Wake Forest. This was still a team that struggled to put away both Rhode Island and Tulane, beating the Green Wave on a last-second field goal. So while undeniably disappointing, the five-game losing streak to end the season was not entirely surprising. Only of Syracuse’s last five losses came by less than 13 points.

High point Syracuse won four games and was given another, thanks to a botched call – and a botched review – of an extra-point try late in the game against Toledo. It was the worst call of the season, one exacerbated by the fact that the officials actually went into the booth and watched replays slowed down to mere frames per second yet still missed the call. Anyway, the win over West Virginia was clearly Syracuse’s most pleasant moment of the season. The Orange could have earned a national title berth if it had played every game like it did much of the second half against the Mountaineers.

Low point The five-game losing streak, the program’s longest losing skein since the middle of the 2006 season. The Orange held only one second-half lead, against Connecticut, and was outscored overall by 155-81. Not a great way to head into the offseason.

Tidbit Syracuse hasn’t finished above .500 over the last six games of the regular season since 2001, when the Orange went 5-1 down the stretch in the program’s last double-digit win season. The Orange have gone 3-3 over the second half three times over the last decade, in 2010, 2005 and 2002. Overall, however, Syracuse is 20-40 over the second half of the regular season since 2002.

Tidbit (recruiting edition) Syracuse is heating up on the recruiting trail. Marrone and his staff have landed five verbal commitments over the last 25 days, giving the program the second-most current commitments of any team in the Big East – Louisville leads the way with nine. The commitments have come from four different states: running back Tyler Provo and linebacker Marqez Hodge are from Florida, quarterback Zach Allen from Texas, quarterback Austin Wilson from Pennsylvania and defensive tackle Wayne Williams from the football hotbed that is Brooklyn, N.Y.

Tidbit (career wins edition) Congratulation, Syracuse: you are now the most successful program in the Big East. After West Virginia’s leap to the Big 12, Syracuse now holds the most career wins, 690, of any program in the conference. The bad news: Syracuse would currently lead all A.C.C. teams in career wins, but Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are right on its heels. The Hokies have 689 victories, Georgia Tech 688 victories; each should be ahead of the Orange come the start of the 2013 season.

Former players in the N.F.L.

25 CB Will Allen (New England), RB Antwon Bailey (Washington), C Ryan Bartholomew (Arizona), RB Curtis Brinkley (San Diego), RB Delone Carter (Indianapolis), OG Ryan Durand (Tennessee), FB Tony Fiammetta (Indianapolis), DE Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis), S Steve Gregory (New England), OG Michael Hay (St. Louis), LB Doug Hogue (Detroit), DB Mike Holmes (Indianapolis), S Tanard Jackson (Washington), DT Arthur Jones (Baltimore), DE Chandler Jones (New England), K Olindo Mare (Carolina), LB Jameel McClain (Baltimore), OT Quinn Ojinnaka (St. Louis), CB Kevyn Scott (Miami), LB Derrell Smith (Houston), S Phillip Thomas (Philadelphia), OG Andrew Tiller (New Orleans), WR Aaron Weaver (Kansas City), WR Mike Williams (Tampa Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Receivers elected to the Hall of Fame since 2001
1. Jerry Rice (2010).
2. Art Monk (2008).
3. James Lofton (2003).
4. Michael Irvin (2007).
5. Lynn Swann (2001).

Coaching

Doug Marrone (Syracuse ’85), 17-20 after three 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 won eight games in 2010 spoke volumes about the job he did 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. Last year’s follow-up was disappointing, but at no point of his tenure has Marrone’s teams resembled the tire fire that was Syracuse football under Greg Robinson. 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., 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.

Tidbit (coaching edition) By and large, Syracuse will have good continuity on the coaching staff. The major pieces return: Nathaniel Hackett at offensive coordinator, Scott Shafer at defensive coordinator, Rob Moore with the receivers, Greg Adkins with the offensive line and so forth. Marrone did make two changes to his defensive staff, however. Defensive tackles coach Jimmy Brumbaugh and linebackers coach Dan Conley are out; the latter hurts a bit, as not only was Conley a program great – one of the program’s best linebackers – but he also gave the program some nice inroads into the Pennsylvania recruiting grounds. Conley was replaced by former Eastern Michigan linebackers coach Steve Morrison, who did a nice at the position with the Eagles. Syracuse did not hire another defensive line coach, instead hiring former N.F.L. assistant Donnie Henderson. He’ll help Shafer with the defensive backs, taking a load off of the coordinator’s plate.

Players to watch

Geno Smith is in the Big 12. Zach Collaros has exhausted his eligibility. Does that mean that Ryan Nassib is the best quarterback in the Big East? You can weigh Nassib against Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and South Florida’s B.J. Daniels all you’d like – I’d probably lean towards Bridgewater as the league’s best – but there’s no doubt that in one key category, as a thrower, Nassib stands above the rest of the Big East’s crop of quarterbacks. He was already the Big East’s second-best passing quarterback as a junior; now entering his third season as Syracuse’s starter, Nassib is on pace for an all-conference season.

He’s a great fit for what the Orange would like to do on offense, minus his below-average running skills. Someday soon, perhaps at certain points during this coming season, you’ll see Marrone and the Orange move towards more of a dual-threat option at quarterback – Ashton Broyld’s time is coming, and that’s something to get excited about. There is no quarterback competition, however. Nassib can make the throws; he knows the system; he does a very nice job spreading the ball around, especially to his intermediate targets; and best of all, he’s still improving.

His touchdowns were up last fall. His ratio of interceptions per attempt was well down. Completion percentage: up. Terrible decisions: down. The light that turned on in the bowl win over Kansas State in 2010 carried over to last season, by and large. If he continues this progression between his junior and senior seasons, Nassib is going to be an all-conference pick. And what of Broyld, an athletic quarterback in the Donovan McNabb mold? Marrone is going to get him on the field in any fashion possible, minus the offensive line. He’ll play quarterback, running back and receiver before becoming the Orange’s full-time starter in 2013. Keep an eye on the freshman.

Syracuse really needs a dose of flash. Broyld can lend some explosiveness to an otherwise staid crop of skill players, which is why Marrone and his staff want to put him in space. If I had to guess – not knowing more about Broyld than what was said during the spring – I’d say that the freshman is more likely to make an impact at running back than at receiver. That Syracuse has an opening in the backfield doubles the chance that Broyld will be taking handoffs from Nassib, not snaps away from Nassib. Broyld is one of four or five backs battling to replace Antown Bailey, who cracked the 1,000-yard mark as a senior. Junior Jerome Smith (134 yards) topped the depth chart after spring ball, and rightfully so: he was the only other back to earn more than 18 carries in 2011.

But it’s too early to give Smith the starting job outright, even if he’s in the driver’s seat. Junior Prince-Tyson Gulley had 66 yards in the win over Toledo before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. It’s probably too early to write off Adonis Ameen-Moore and Greg Tobias, two sophomores who missed a good portion of spring ball due to injuries. And while Broyld doesn’t strike me as an every-down back – or even a traditional back, one who will follow a lead blocker between the tackles – he’s going to get his touches in the running game. Somehow, the Orange need to replace Bailey’s production.

Having a solid line will help, though the Orange need to address some depth issues up front. Injuries limited first-team all-conference left tackle Justin Pugh during the spring, as they did key interior reserve Rob Trudo and right tackle Sean Hickey, a projected starter heading into the spring. Each is expected back before the start of fall camp, but the injuries are worrisome, to put it lightly – especially when it comes to Pugh, the anchor up front. In a perfect world, Pugh and Hickey would bookend the line with senior Zach Chibane back at left guard, sophomore Macky MacPherson at center, Trudo at right guard and either Hickey or former JUCO transfer Lou Alexander at right tackle.

As of today? Sophomore Krisotfer Curtis is in Pugh’s spot, Chibane and redshirt freshman Ivan Foy at guard – Foy may not be ready for that – MacPherson at center and Alexander at tackle. It’s not a good situation. Pugh needs to be there, obviously. Syracuse could stand to use Trudo at center instead of MacPherson, who is way too undersized. As of today, the line is a mess. The Orange need the three linemen currently M.I.A. to get healthy as soon as possible – and stay healthy, mind you.

Sophomore Jeremiah Kobena’s development during the spring was a good sign for Syracuse, which could be without leading receiver Alec Lemon (68 catches for 834 yards), a senior, for the beginning of this coming season. The Orange also bring back senior Marcus Sales, who missed all of last season following a summertime arrest on drug charges. If Sales can pick up where he left off in 2010, Syracuse should be in fine shape; he made 21 grabs for 375 yards and 3 scores over the final four games of the season. This will be your top three once Lemon returns. While Nassib will miss his security blanket at tight end, Nick Provo, the Orange believe that senior David Stevens (16 receptions for 167 yards) can pick up a good portion of Provo’s lost production.

Calls for Syracuse’s demise on defense are fairly exaggerated. Yes, the Orange lose both starting ends, and yes, one went in the first round of April’s N.F.L. Draft – that was a potential over production pick, however. There are a few starters to replace in the secondary, making the Orange’s pass defense significant concern for the second straight season. It looks worse than it is. The defense isn’t going to put the clamps down on U.S.C. or slow down Missouri on the road, but this group is strong enough to keep the Orange in games during conference play. While the defense isn’t great, the situation isn’t as bad as it seems.

Even with two solid ends in place, the defensive line was a disappointment – more on that below. Despite the changing cast up front, the Orange have enough size and potential to do a stronger job against the run. Several beefy underclassmen stepping into larger roles can help fill gaps along the interior on first and second down. Can the front four mount a pass rush on third down? That’s the big question for this defense.

The linebacker corps ranks among the three best in the Big East. The group as a whole returns nearly intact, though one of the three returning starters, junior Marquis Spruill (62 tackles, 8.5 for loss), missed spring ball with a lower body injury – and as an aside, Marrone couldn’t be less forthcoming when it comes divulging the nature of a player’s injuries. A second-team all-conference pick last fall, Spruill is one-third of a terrific starting lineup. He’s flanked on the strong side by senior Dan Vaughan (72 tackles, 6.5 for loss). The Orange’s star on the second level? For now, that’s Spruill – he’s steadily productive, so this defense needs him to be healthy come the fall.

But the starter with the most potential is absolutely sophomore Dyshawn Davis (43 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 4.0 sacks), a surprise starter as a true freshman. Davis is proof that arriving early can often mean the difference between playing major snaps and taking a redshirt: Davis enrolled over the winter in 2011, allowing him to gain a foothold in Shafer’s defense in March and April before cementing a starting role in August. While he was a bit wild as a rookie starter, Davis is one of only a few cogs in the front seven who can get consistent pressure in the backfield. That makes him invaluable, though the Orange could really use some more speed on third down – again, more on the defensive line below. Davis might be the most important starter on this defense.

Each of the four projected starters in the secondary have experience in the starting lineup. Only one of the four, however, carries extensive starting experience into 2012. That would be senior strong safety Shamarko Thomas (67 tackles), who started 17 games over his first three years, including 10 games as a junior. Thomas has been a fixture in the rotation since his freshman season, though several of his starts as a first-year player came at linebacker. That Thomas took snaps on the second level – partly out of necessity, to be honest – illustrates his primary strength, which is helping the front seven against the run. Thomas was able to play closer to the line of scrimmage at times because of Phillip Thomas, the former free safety who led the Orange and the Big East with six interceptions as a senior.

Phillip Thomas must be replaced, as will cornerback Kevyn Scott. The latter isn’t a huge loss: Ri’Shard Anderson, a senior, started four of the last five games of 2012 in Scott’s place and six games overall, so he has enough experience to bridge the gap to a full-time starting role. When he returns to full health, junior Keon Lyn, a 10-game starter in 2011, will join Anderson in the starting lineup.

What’s the problem? Syracuse intercepted 10 passes as a team in 2011, the second-fewest in the Big East. Phillip Thomas accounted for six of these picks, and only one returning defender made an interception last fall. That defensive back, junior Jeremi Wilkes, steps into the starting job at free safety. The Orange must do a better job forcing turnovers; a beefed-up pass rush would help matters, but the four starting defensive backs must also take advantage of any and all opportunities thrown their way.

Syracuse can’t rely on junior kicker Ross Krautman beyond 45 yards, but he’s fairly automatic within that range. That’s fine. The Orange have bigger issues on special teams. One is the play of sophomore punter Jonathan Fisher, though he’ll be improved in his second season. A second is the dearth of explosiveness in the return game. The Orange will head into 2012 with no changes: Steve Rene will return punts and Kobena will handle kickoffs. Both need to do more to help Syracuse win the field position game.

Position(s) to watch

Defensive line Last year’s line accounted for 11.0 sacks. That’s all. While the Orange were again stout against the run – finishing 32nd nationally in yards per game – you can attribute that total in large part to the dearth of quality running teams in the Big East as a whole; six Big East teams finished in the top 21 in the F.B.S. in run defense, and only two of the league’s eight teams averaged more than 140.8 rushing yards per game. Basically, thanks to Big East offenses as a whole and great depth along the interior, Syracuse doesn’t need to worry about its run defense. The pass rush, on the other hand: Syracuse needs more in this area from its front four.

The Orange return both of last season’s starting tackles, though one, senior nose tackle Deon Goggins (43 tackles, 7.5 for loss), will shift out to end in 2012. That leaves junior tackle Jay Bromley (32 tackles, 5.5 for loss) with a new running mate inside, likely senior Cory Boatman, who held the top spot after spring drills. Boatman and Bromley weigh in at around 285 pounds apiece – not overly huge, but big enough. The two reserves, sophomores Eric Crume and Ryan Sloan, are enormous; at 332 and 324 pounds, respectively, each could be immovable on running downs. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see Crume eventually replace Boatman on the nose.

Goggins was expendable inside not merely because of the younger talent at Syracuse’s disposal but also because the Orange need to retool at end – no more Chandler Jones or Mikhail Marinovich. Yet even with this talented pair in the lineup, the Orange couldn’t muster much of a pass rush with the front four. Goggins could be a really nice fit as the defense’s contain end, but the Orange do need to get more speed coming off the edge. Enter JUCO transfer Markus Pierce-Brewster, who in all likelihood will replace Jones in the starting lineup. All Pierce-Brewster needs to do is grasp the defense; many JUCO transfers – at Syracuse and elsewhere – have tried and failed, unfortunately. Undersized sophomore Donnie Simmons, senior Brandon Sharpe and converted tackle Robert Welch are the other options at end.

Game(s) to watch

Syracuse will take on four B.C.S. conference teams during non-conference play, with only one, Northwestern, coming to the Carrier Dome. The Orange will meet U.S.C. at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey and play Minnesota and Missouri – the latter’s a nice November present – on the road. Syracuse will also play four Big East road games: Rutgers, South Florida, Cincinnati and Temple. If you’re keeping track, this means that the Orange will play only five true home games all season; only one of the five, Louisville, comes after Oct. 19.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Syracuse can win the Big East. That says more about the league’s lack of a clear frontrunner than it does about the Orange, but regardless: Syracuse can take home its third Big East title in its final season in the league. What would this team need to do in order to go out on top? For starters, the Orange would need to forget about the non-conference schedule, which won’t go well. There’s every reason to think that Syracuse won’t go better than 2-3 outside of Big East play, and every reason to think that 1-4 is a distinct possibility. But when it comes to conference action, the Orange simply need to get healthy up front, especially at left tackle; find a new lead back, or at least find a way to replicate Bailey’s production; have Nassib take another step forward as a senior, and I believe he will; get more from the pass rush, especially at defensive end; and create more turnovers in the passing game. If all this comes to pass, Syracuse is going to have a nice conference season. The Orange won’t be so lucky. The only positions where this team can feel secure are quarterback, the interior of the defensive line and linebacker. For now, injury woes make the offensive line a concern. There’s no proven production at running back. The receiver corps has a strong top group but lacks depth. The pass rush could be an issue all year — and by extension, the secondary as well. There are enough concerns as to lead me to believe that Syracuse will finish outside of bowl play for a second straight season – remember that in addition to the tough non-conference slate, the Orange get only three Big East games at home. This isn’t a great team, but an easier schedule would absolutely allow the Orange to squeeze into the postseason with six or seven wins. In reality, there isn’t one F.B.S. game that stands as a clear victory. Yet I want to make this point: Syracuse could be a surprise team in the Big East. The league is so wide open as to potentially allow a team with some substantial question marks to move from the cellar to the penthouse.

Dream season U.S.C. provides the only non-conference loss and Louisville the only Big East defeat. At 10-2 overall and 6-1 in conference play, Syracuse caps its Big East existence with a conference title and B.C.S. bowl berth. It’ll get harder once the Orange jump to the A.C.C.

Nightmare season Stony Brook stands as Syracuse’s lone non-conference win. Only an October win over Connecticut saves the Orange from a winless Big East season. At 2-10 overall and 1-6 in the Big East, Syracuse limps into the A.C.C.

In case you were wondering

Where do Syracuse fans congregate? With such 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 Nolan Weidner-led football coverage at Syracuse.com is also superb. Of course, any mention of Syracuse football must include Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician.

Syracuse’s all-name nominee FB Myles Davis.

Word Count

Through 42 teams 148,710.

Up Next

Who is No. 82? The head coach at tomorrow’s university is the only one in the F.B.S. to share the same initials as a member of the 300-win club and a member of the 3,000-hit club.

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Comments

  1. Vic says:

    Arizona State is next

    Tom Glavine – Tony Gwynn – Todd Graham

  2. jjncaa says:

    the Cuse won’t join the ACC until 2014

  3. GTWrek says:

    The current de jure join date for the Cuse is 2014. It’s widely believed that the de facto date is 2013.

  4. jjncaa says:

    the PITT filed a lawsuit against the Big East, but the Orange respect the conference’ 27-month exit period

  5. GTWrek says:

    Pitt’s lawsuit is irrelevant to the topic at hand, and both Pitt and the Orange will be leaving in time for the 2013 season. This isn’t difficult, do the tiniest modicum of research and you should figure it out fairly easily.

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