Team: Syracuse Orange
2012 W-L: 8-5 (5-2 in Big East)
Head Coach: Scott Shafer (0-0; first season)
Returning Starters: 12 (6 Offense, 6 Defense)
After pulling his alma mater out from college football exile (more or less), former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone headed off to “greener” pastures this offseason: Buffalo, to coach the NFL’s Bills. While some might argue that he wasn’t exactly done with the job — after all, this was a program that just a decade or so ago was finishing in the top 15-20 every year — you can’t say he didn’t leave the program in infinitely better shape than how he inherited it. Most important in that is the Orange’s move to the ACC, and now without Marrone, they’ve got quite the challenge ahead of them. There’s faith that new coach Scott Shafer should keep the team on an upward trajectory, but it won’t be easy to keep the small private school from Upstate New York climbing.
All the concern — for this season, anyway — starts off with the changes on offense. QB Ryan Nassib is gone after a superb senior campaign, and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett (the architect of last year’s attack) followed Marrone to Buffalo. Last year’s top two receivers are gone too, as are standout linemen Justin Pugh and Zach Chibane. So needless to say, there’s plenty of rebuilding to be done. To replace Nassib, the team is still deciding between Terrel Hunt and Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen, both of whom look ready for the job (though my money’s on Allen) and a nice change of pace from the former SU record-breaker. Hunt, a junior, is a dual-threat, while Allen is a more polished pro-style passer, and it’s likely both will see plenty of playing time this year. As far as who’s catching passes, it’s Jarrod West and tight end Beckett Wales, most importantly, with a lot of unproven alternatives along with them. The line has more experience than most realize — Sean Hickey and Macky MacPherson have both seen plenty of playing time — and despite the losses, I think this group actually holds up compared to last season. Finally, George McDonald takes over the offense, and admittedly, we don’t really know what we’re getting there.
Luckily, the rest of the team’s personnel gives us a hint. Following a torrid second half of the season (and capped by a phenomenal Pinstripe Bowl), the running game has more depth and experience than just about any other team in the ACC. Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley obviously headline the group and could both challenge for 1,000-yard seasons (Smith nearly tallied 1,200 last year, while Gulley had 830). But that’s really just scratching the surface of the type of talent the backfield posses. Adonis Ameen-Moore should grab goal line carries like last year (he had five scores last year) and jack-of-all-trades Ashton Broyld figures to play a role in both the rushing and passing games. Devante McFarlane and George Morris II also looked great this spring and given how thrilled McDonald has been with the team’s running backs in the offseason, I’d be shocked if they didn’t grab some carries this fall.
On defense, there’s continuity (Shafer was last season’s coordinator), but additional personnel shifts that are certainly instilling some doubt amongst observers. Defensive tackle Jay Bromley is the only starter from the line to return, which makes it unlikely the Orange equal last season’s 27 sacks. It also calls into question whether they can replicate the 42nd-ranked run defense as well (bet you didn’t know the team was ranked that high — I’m an SU fan, and I didn’t). Lucky for them, they may not need to, though. Helping the young line deal with some growing pains will be a very strong linebacker group that should anchor this entire defense. Dyshawn Davis and Marquis Spruill bring boatloads of starting experience and either (or both) could have breakout seasons while taking advantage of opportunities to get heavily involved in stopping both the run and pass. The speedy Davis has already introduced himself to the ACC by proclaiming Syracuse would “shock the world” upon arrival, and with that type of confidence, there will certainly be a spotlight on him to start the season.
In the secondary, the Orange must figure out how to replace safety Phillip Thomas, but that’s in no way underselling the experienced group he’s left behind. Ri’Shard Anderson, Jeremi Wilkes and Keon Lyn are the elder statesmen in the secondary and beyond their own performance, they’ll play a distinct role in bringing the younger players along. There’s plenty to work on in their own efforts too though, after allowing 23 passing touchdowns and 234 yards per game in 2012 (neither figure all that great). They also pulled in just nine interceptions, which will do them no favors in the pass-happy ACC. Unheralded reserve Julian Whigham may help there, as he’s been noted as a bit of a ballhawk this offseason, but as a team, SU must do a better job of forcing turnovers this season.
With so much change this offseason, it appears to spell doom for Syracuse — at least according to most outlets. I’m obviously a bit biased, but with just three sure losses on the schedule (Clemson, Florida State and Northwestern), there’s actually quite a bit of promise for this Syracuse team this season. Regardless of who plays quarterback, SU’s offense will focus on a very strong running game first and foremost, which should take pressure off the less-experienced players you’ll find elsewhere in the unit. With a defense that possesses one of the conference’s top linebacker corps, there’s still plenty to like, especially given the crap-shoot much of the Atlantic Division figures to be. They won’t be world-beaters right off the bat, but there’s more than enough talent on this roster to compete each and every week — which is a perfect way to start off things in a brand new league.
Prediction: (7-5) (4-4); Belk Bowl