Team: Syracuse Orange
2011 W-L: 5-7 (1-6)
Head Coach: Doug Marrone (17-20; fourth season)
Returning Starters: 12 (5 Offense, 7 Defense)
The 2011 season couldn’t have been more frustrating for the Syracuse Orange. Coming off the high of their first bowl win since 2001, big things were expected from SU under coach Doug Marrone. And yes, there were plenty of big accomplishments — a huge Friday night win over West Virginia at the Carrier Dome, the invite to the ACC and Chandler Jones‘s rise into the mid-first round of the NFL Draft, in particular. But what will stick out most is almost certainly the bad. The media smear campaign against them just because they were charter members of the Big East (oh well). The botched referee call versus Toledo. And of course, the horrendous five-game losing streak to end the season. Needless to say, ‘Cuse fans would love to move on to 2012 and leave last year dead and buried in the backyard.
After scoring 30 or more points in four of their first seven games (all wins), SU would never score more than 21 in any of their final five contests. The running game went stale, and quarterback Ryan Nassib — the picture of accuracy throughout the season’s first seven games — tried too hard to pick up the slack and as a result, began making poor decisions that ultimately removed SU from games completely. From a fan’s point of view, play-calling appeared unimaginative and downright suspect, repeatedly going after the same holes and same receivers with the same maddeningly awful results. But still, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett maintained his position and is back on for another go-around with his Tecmo Bowl playbook.
On the bright side for the Syracuse offense this year, they can learn from last year’s mistakes and put it all behind them. On the bad side, there are only five returning starters, and the most important one (much-lauded left tackle Justin Pugh) is out until October now. Additionally, they’ll also have to work with a completely revamped running game, likely operated by committee. Carries will be split between Jerome Smith, Adonis Ameen-Moore and Prince-Tyson Gulley, with hope one can establish enough of a rhythm to take on 15 -20 carries per game. The hope is to avoid using the passing game as a focal point, though if they must, the receiving targets are a bright spot (two-deep, at least). Senior Alec Lemon, the team’s phenomenal slot receiver, is about to break every record the school has (no small feat) and can be penciled in for 70 catches so long as he stays healthy. Lining up opposite of him will be much-maligned deep-ball threat Marcus Sales. The fellow senior, who stole the show at the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl, is looking forward to another shot at success after being away from the team in 2011.
Over on the defensive side of the ball, SU returns seven starters, though no one’s sure if they actually want any of them back. The team has to find a way to replace Chandler Jones’s production on the line (they struggled to create a pass rush without him in 2011), first and foremost, especially with the question marks hovering around the secondary. Syracuse allowed 27 points or more in all but three games; an unacceptable mark for any team, but it’s indicative of how much their five wins were an aberration to disguise how bad this unit really was. Their 28 sacks and 10 interceptions (worst, and second-worst in the conference, respectively) were largely fueled by the WVU blowout. Oh, did you know they face the preseason number-one team in the nation, USC, this season? There’s also no guarantee that they can effectively stop the run after being shredded last year.
But all of that’s not to pile on the Orange. And if anything, it’s a product of your author’s proximity to the team that he’s able to dole out so many negative critiques and frustrations. Nassib made huge strides in 2011, and still ended up tossing for over 2,600 yards and 22 scores. Their special teams — I’d contend among the worst in the country — truly can’t get any worse than it was last year. Freshman Ashton Broyld (Syracuse’s Tim Tebow) may be our starting quarterback eventually, but until then, he’ll be fun to watch in some sort of wildcat formation while representing the hopes and dreams of a fan base. The running game, while it’s a big question mark, has the potential to work, especially with three effective backs who all run differently. I fully expect Sales to return to his Pinstripe Bowl form and give the team its first true longball threat (for a full season) since Mike Williams left the program.
The 2012 season will, in one way or another, be a deciding year for Doug Marrone’s legacy. Should he manage to take this team to a 6-6 record or beyond, the heat dies down and he enjoys a relaxing offseason while preparing for the team’s move to the ACC. If, under the weight of injuries and one of the country’s toughest non-conference schedules, he falls flat and the team misses the postseason yet again, he’s in trouble. Outsiders may scoff, but we’re only a decade removed from a golden age of Orange football. This team and this fan base held themselves to a pretty high standard prior to the Greg Robinson era. For what it’s worth, one would hope they’re willing to exercise patience before trying to replace Marrone. But he has to give the school something to work with if they hope to fight off criticism for an extended period. Expect him to deliver this year (relatively), so long as injuries don’t become too big of an issue.
Prediction: (6-6) (3-4); Beef O’Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg