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2012 College Football Season Preview: Syracuse Orange
2011 Record: (5-7, 1-6 in Big East)
Head Coach: Doug Marrone (17-20 at Syracuse, 6-15 in Big East games)
Last Bowl Game: 2010 Pinstripe Bowl: beat Kansas St 36-34
Stat to Cheer: allowed just 44.44% TD rate inside the red zone (2nd in Big East, 5th in Nation)
Stats to Fear: scored TDs on just 52% of red zone trips (last in Big East, 99th in Nation), had only nine plays of 30 or more yards (last in Big East, 118th in Nation)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 5; Defense: 7; Specialists: 2)
CFBZ: After a surprising second year for Doug Marrone, the Orange took a bit of a step back in the W-L column and only won one conference game last year. What were the primary reasons behind the three game loss in the win column?
Dan Lyons: It seems like an obvious answer, but the biggest difference between the 2010 and 2011 Syracuse teams was the players who graduated and left the program, especially on the defensive side. Syracuse lost star linebackers Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue, who were All-Conference caliber players, defensive backs Mike Holmes, Max Suter and Da'Mon Merkerson who both had very good seasons, and almost our entire defensive tackle rotation, which consisted of seniors Bud Tribbey, Andrew Lewis, and Anthony Perkins, who were all very solid players.
Because Syracuse had so many lean years heading into 2010, these eight players all had a ton of experience going into their senior years, and they formed one of the better defenses in the country. Replacing that much talent and experience on one side of the ball did not go as well as many Syracuse fans would have hoped. Coach Marrone and defensive coordinator Scott Shafer plugged in a number of very talented, but raw players who showed flashes of ability, but they were not able to gel into a unit that could replicate the success of the 2010 squad. That year of experience should bode well for this years team, though.
The offense did not lose as many players, but with running back Delone Carter graduating, the offense was never really able to find a rhythm with Antwon Bailey as a featured back. Carter was an absolute bruiser who picked up three to four yards any time he touched the ball, and in my opinion the coaches tried to pigeonhole Antwon into a similar role despite the fact that he was a much small back, and it really didn't work well for him. Antwon ended up having a decent year, and picked up over 1000 yards, but the offense took a step back.
Ultimately, last year's team was very young, and they didn't quite know how to win. Obviously the drubbing of West Virginia was an amazing game, but Syracuse handed away a game to Rutgers the week before, which the Scarlet Knights had no business winning, played an awful game the week after against Louisville, and blew a decent sized lead to a UConn team that couldn't hold onto the ball until the fourth quarter. After starting 5-2, I would have told you there was no chance Syracuse would fail to grab one more win and get a bowl berth, but that's what happened. Hopefully the devastating losses of last season can propel this year's team towards a solid season, much like what we saw in 2010.
CFBZ: What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic about Syracuse football in 2012?
Dan Lyons: This year's Syracuse team, on paper, has more weapons on offense than it has in many seasons. Quarterback Ryan Nassib will be a three year starter, and while he'll never be a guy who can dominate a game regardless of who lines up around him, he is a very capable game manager who will, on occasion, light a team up.
Bailey is gone, but Syracuse has a very talented, diverse stable of running backs. Junior Jerome Smith is a big, bruising back with deceptive speed who had a bit of a break out game against Pitt in the season finally, where he gained 56 yards on 10 carries and scored a touchdown. Junior Prince-Tyson Gulley is the complete opposite. He's a quick scat-back who has made some big plays early in his Syracuse career, but can't seem to stay healthy. They're joined by sophomore Adonis Ameen-Moore, who is a load in the backfield. He's currently listed at 244 lbs, although I'm sure the staff would like to see him a bit lighter. He played sparingly last season, but if he's ready to go this year he could be a very solid short yardage option. True freshman George Morris, an every down type who was one of the most productive players in Georgia last year, may also see time although splitting carries four ways may prove to be a challenge.
The receiving corps features senior Alec Lemon, who is coming off an excellent second half of last year, including 157 and 179 yard efforts against UConn and USF respectively. Marcus Sales joins him after sitting out for a year due to an arrest-related suspension. Sales has never quite lived up to his four-star billing, and being a local kid out of Syracuse's Christian Brothers Academy doesn't help things, but fans look to his stellar, unexpected 2010 Pinstripe Bowl performance (five receptions, 172 yards, three touchdowns) and see potential. Word is that he looked very sharp in spring practice, which is a good sign. Sales has not always been a dedicated practice player.
The big question mark for Syracuse, as it seems to be every year, is the offensive line. Tackle Justin Pugh is probably the program's best player and he could be up for All-American consideration this year. Center Macky MacPherson returns as well, although his role is a contentious issue for fans.
Macky is very undersized, and tends to struggle with bigger defensive lineman, but from my perspective he really played pretty well last season, and most of the criticisms and accusations of Marrone being guilty of nepotism (Macky is former Syracuse coach Dick MacPherson's grandson) are unfounded. Guard Zach Chibane also returns, although he is a bit of an enigma. In 2010, I would have slotted him in right behind Pugh among our best linemen, but last season he struggled mightily, and was often to blame for the constant pressure Nassib felt in many games. If he rebounds and has a strong 2012, the two new starters, who are not yet known, have decent years, the offensive line can be a strength this year. Time will tell however, as this is a story that Syracuse fans read year after year.
CFBZ: Syracuse will be leaving the Big East next season to join the ACC. On the way out what are the top three games that the fans want to win this season?
Dan Lyons: I would say the USC game at the Meadowlands, but I think most Syracuse fans are just going to be happy to be there. I thought we played admirably against USC in the Coliseum last year, but obviously they're expected to be a national title contender this year and we're just not ready for that type of challenge yet. So...
Northwestern- In order to feel safe about clinching a bowl, Syracuse should really look to take three of our five out-of-conference games. Stony Brook should be a sure thing, and Minnesota is fairly weak, although anything can happen in a Syracuse football game. USC doesn't look possible, and while Missouri is a winnable game later in the year, that is a tough test on the road. Opening the year with a win against Northwestern, who should be solid this season, would give SU some solid momentum.
Rutgers- RU continues to be our main recruiting rival, and their recent success has really coincided with the Syracuse's descent. While the ACC is a major recruiting boon for Syracuse, a third win in four years for Marrone would really cement dominance in the relationship between these two teams, and would give SU bragging rights as we leave the Big East for greener pastures.
UConn- Marrone just can't seem to get over this hump. He's yet to beat UConn, even when we had complete control of the game last season at Rentschler Field. This game also marks coach Paul Pasqualoni's return to Syracuse for the first time since he was let go in 2004. Syracuse fans have a very mixed opinion of Coach P and his lasting legacy at SU, so it will be very interesting to see what kind of reception he gets.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Dan Lyons: I think a bowl has to be the goal this season. It is a bit disappointing that Syracuse slipped last season after making a bowl before many expected in 2010, so getting back there is an absolute must. Looking at the schedule, I don't think 6-6 is unreasonable, and I'll make that my early prediction, although it really could go anywhere from 4-8 to 9-3. Syracuse seems to do best with lower expectations, and many fans are expecting another 5-7 year, so hopefully Marrone and company can pull some tricks out of the bag and renew excitement in the program going forward.
Dan did a great job re-capping the offense and defense in our Q&A so I will get right into the schedule. Most Big East teams were probably happy to get West Virginia off of their schedule this year (although not necessarily happy to lose the closest thing to a marquee football program the Big East had) but shockingly it was the only Big East team that the Orange beat last year. The step back that the Orange took last year was due to their conference games. Out of conference they went 4-1 and in conference just 1-6. From October 29th onward the Orange went 0-5.
This year, the Orange faces a tough out of conference schedule (Northwestern, USC, at Minnesota and at Missouri). The best case scenario for the out of conference games is 4-1 but being more realistic will probably see them come out 3-2 or 2-3. That leaves the conference games to get Syracuse over the bowl eligibility hump and they have lots of bulletin board material after their demise last year. One thing that may hurt is that Syracuse gets just three home games (in-conference) this year and must go on the road for four. I think it's important for Syracuse to get out of the gates of conference play quickly as they play Pitt and UConn in two of the first three conference games and if Syracuse wants to go to a bowl this year those are games they must win.
2012 Prediction: 6-6
Previous 2012 Previews:
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