An absurdly premature assessment of the 2011 Orange.
• Previously On… For beleaguered Syracuse fans, 2010 was like taking a long, hot shower after a week hiking through the woods. Or more like five years, actually, and more like drifting aimlessly at sea. On the heels of five straight losing seasons — four of them under Greg "Gerg" Robinson, serial cultivator of death — 'Cuse finally basked again in the rewards of basic competence: First bowl game since 2004. First winning record since 2003. First bowl win since 2001. First win over West Virginia since '01; first wins over Cincinnati and South Florida since they joined the Big East in '05. As many Big East wins altogether (four) as in the previous five seasons combined. For a few fleeting weeks, the Orange were even on the brink of the top 25.
Most importantly, Doug Marrone's second season produced the first unambiguous sense of progress in at least a decade. That's not because 'Cuse were good; the offense, in fact, was as ineffectual as ever (97th nationally in total offense, 93rd in scoring) and disappeared in November, when the Orange dropped three of their last four to close the regular season. Quarterback Ryan Nassib took the same beating meted out against his immediate predecessors, courtesy of opposing pass rushers. But they weren't bad, either, which qualifies as a major step forward.
• The Big Change. Greg Robinson is a career defensive coach; Marrone's built his resumé on offense. But it was under the former that the defense tanked in a really Biblical, plague-of-locusts sort of way, and under Marrone that it's improved in such miraculous fashion that it really has to be seen to be believed:
|The Least You Should Know About...|
|•• In 2010|
|8-5 (4-3 Big East); Won Pinstripe Bowl.|
|•• Past Five Years|
|2006-10: 21-40 (8-27 Big East); 4-24 in Big East from 2006-09.|
|•• Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*|
|2007-11: 48 • 48 • N/A • N/A • N/A.|
|•• Best Player|
Sure, his interviewer skills could use a little work, but defensive end Chandler Jones didn't come to Syracuse for the communications school: In fact, he came as a lanky tight end in 2008. He wasted no time establishing himself as the team's most disruptive d-lineman as a redshirt freshman, though, and made good on that debut last year with 9.5 tackles for loss, a team-high four sacks and a second-team All-Big East nod. He also got the demonic comic treatment from 'Cuse-based artist Michael Borkowski, who has developed a very singular vision of Otto the Orange in his work.
|•• Best Year Ever|
All Syracuse teams will always and forever toil under the standard of the 1959 Orangemen, which began the season unranked and ended it undefeated, untied and No. 1 in both the Associated Press and UPI polls for the only time in school history. 'Cuse led the nation in scoring behind sophomore halfback Ernie Davis, scraped by rival Penn State in its only close game of the regular season (20-18) and finished off Texas in the Cotton Bowl for the perfect season.
|•• Best Case|
|Consistent, efficient effort from Nassib, with the aid of a still-functioning running game; minimal slip from the status quo by the defense; a fast start against a very manageable front half of the schedule. 9-3, Champs Sports Bowl, fringe of top 25.|
|•• Worst Case|
|Continued stagnation on offense; ineffective running game between the tackles; regression by the defense in transition to seven new starters. 5-7, no bowl, squandered opportunity to capitalize on significant step forward in 2010.|
|* Based on Rivals' national rankings (top 50 only)|
Part of that stems from the fast that the Big East seems to have collectively decided as a conference to take a year off from the stress of, like, offense. (The highest-scoring attack in the conference, Cincinnati, was 57th nationally at 27.1 points per game.) But even within the conference, the Orange were solid — third in scoring defense, second in total defense and pass efficiency D, and first in total passing yards. The turnaround in the secondary, in particular — still a rock-bottom outfit in 2009 — was a borderline miracle.
That's why it's going to be so hard to say goodbye to both starting cornerbacks, Mike Holmes and Da'Mon Merkerson, as well as nickel back Max Suter, which is only the tip of the iceberg: Altogether, the defense also loses both defensive tackles and the top tacklers each of the last two years, linebackers Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue, both of whom landed on the All-Big East team after leading last year's resurgence. The Orange lose seven of their top dozen tacklers, leaving multiple voids on all three levels.
• Big Men On Campus. The fun part of throwing together a green, patchwork offensive line from parts no one seemed to imagine before the season is watching those parts slowly start clicking together as a whole. The not-so-fun part is the growing pains, of which Syracuse experienced more than its share with a front line composed of four first-year starters — Justin Pugh, Zack Chibane, Andrew Tiller and Michael Hay — who had barely played a down of offense as underclassmen, much less as a unit. And they frequently looked like it: Quarterback Ryan Nassib was sacked 33 times. But that motley quartet wound up starting every game in the same positions throughout the season, and comes back intact (minus departed center Ryan Bartholomew) with 54 career starts to their credit.
That experience means nothing if Syracuse finishes 97th again in total offense. But if there's any group here on either side of the ball in position to make a serious leap forward, it's this offensive line, Marrone's specialty.
• Open Casting. The only unquestionable bright spot on the offense was senior running back Delone Carter, who turned in his second straight 1,000-yard season on the ground and left a void where about 30 percent of the team's total offense used to be — and it was not a good offense to begin with. Carter's obvious successor is Antwon Bailey, a rising senior himself who's served as a steady backup for three years (1,087 yards, five touchdowns on 5.1 per carry for his career) and was already far more involved than Carter in the passing game. What Bailey lacks as a home run threat, though (that is, the whole "threat" part) the Orange may be able to make up for with undersized sophomore Prince-Tyson Gulley, the best chance to inject some dangerous new blood into the offense after a freshman season relegated almost exclusively to the return game.
• Overly optimistic spring narrative. A veteran offensive line in front of a senior quarterback is a tried-and-true formula for success, and in fact this is a pretty grizzled lineup all the way down: The < ahref="http://suathletics.syr.edu/sports/2006/8/7/2007DepthChart.aspx?path=football">initial spring depth chart lists 13 senior starters, eight more on the two-deep and three juniors with at least a year under their belts as starters. With this schedule, the Orange are likely favorites in at least seven games, and with even one emergent, All-Big East-caliber playmaker on both sides of the ball, they can still be in the thick of the conference championship hunt when they go to Pittsburgh on Dec. 3.
• The Big Question. Who are those playmakers going to be? If it's anyone in the existing lineup, we sure haven't seen it yet — the running game revolved around Carter, and the passing game has consistently lingered in the bottom half of the conference. Nassib was competent as a first-year starter in the sense that he's not going to give the game away, but he's not going to scare anyone, either. (Consider also that his mediocre numbers were somewhat inflated by early games against the likes of lower-division cupcakes Maine and Colgate and 1-11 Akron, the worst team in the MAC; against Big East defenses, Nassib's pass efficiency rating was an impoverished 104.6.) The best players on the defense, Smith and Hogue, both graduated. There's still a distinct lack of anyone who makes you sit up straight in your seat.
To the extent that the goal this season is to consolidate last year's gains and finally carry the banner of a "winning program" again, a solid, experienced team that doesn't beat itself may be good enough. Anything more than that will be straying pretty far from the preseason script.