Dan is a freelance writer who has an unhealthy obsession with Syracuse athletics. He also follows the Boston Red Sox and has no idea why people assume a Syracuse native should be a Yankee fan. He can be followed on twitter @HoboWriterDK.
When the clock expired at Yankee Stadium this past December, bringing the first Pinstripe Bowl to a close, I stood standing in the upper, upper deck, seemingly a mile away from the action. But the elation that was emanating from Syracuse's boys in blue (and orange) was electric, even from so far away.
The feeling could only be described as cathartic. All of the anguish that accompanied being a Syracuse football fan for over half a decade seemed to dissipate and it was clear that those loathsome days were over.
My pondering of the season to come, now only days away, began almost immediately. There were so many question marks to consider, particularly on defense, where the Syracuse lost seven starters from a squad that was 7th in the country in total defense in 2010. But for the offense, there was so much to look forward to with nearly everyone returning a year older and wiser. It's been obvious for awhile now to anyone who’s given any thought to this upcoming season-- the Orange offense is going to be expected to step up and carry more of the burden if the team hopes to return to a bowl game and,
perhaps, challenge for a Big East championship.
This, I feel, is a good spot to be in. Or at least, it could be a lot worse. The offense was respectable last year and it would have looked better if it hadn't tailed off in the last few games. Whether that was due to injuries (which almost certainly played some role) or hitting that figurative wall that is often mentioned with teams who are just beginning to learn how to win games is unclear. What we do know is that quarterback Ryan Nassib had a solid season in his first year as a starter and all reports out of training camp suggest that he could be in for a big year. Delone Carter is gone, but it's hard not to be excited about big-play potential that senior tailback Antwon Bailey brings to both the running and passing game.
Here's something to consider:
Delone Carter has been the featured back in Syracuse's offense for the last two seasons. While he was a juggernaut that was nearly impossible for just one man to bring down, his lack of top-end speed kept him from being a serious big-play threat. With a first year starter at quarterback and a group of young receivers last season, Carter was clearly the focus of Syracuse's relatively conservative offense and, consequently, the focus of every defense that they played against. Utilizing a run-heavy offense to pound the football between the tackles for 3-5 yards at a time isn't a way to put up gaudy offensive numbers. Syracuse won seven games during the regular season focusing on ball control and dominating on defense.
This year, the quarterback and top receivers are veterans. If training camp reports about Jarrod West, Dorian Graham, Adrian Flemming and others are any indication, Syracuse could also be much deeper at receiver, despite the loss of Marcus Sales. Combining that with the fact that the top two tailbacks on the depth chart are both smaller, shiftier backs who thrive in open space, I'm expecting to see an offense
that looks to spread things out and pass the ball a lot more. For fans who were hoping to see the New Orleans Saints' offense when Doug Marrone was hired, this might be the moment you’ve been waiting for.
I for one am expecting to see Ryan Nassib throw for more yards than any Syracuse quarterback ever has in a single season. Last year he broke the records for pass completions and attempts and finished just alittle over 200 yards short of Marvin Graves mark of 2,547. That’s a relatively modest figure for today’s offenses and inconsistency was the only thing that kept Nassib from breaking the record in his first year as a starter. This season, injuries are probably the only thing that can keep him from it.
The defense is, of course, the big question mark going into the year though. What we know is that Syracuse could have the best safety tandem in the Big East and, quite possibly, one of the best defensive end duos as well. While those tidbits are encouraging, that's really the only thing that anyone can say for sure. The Orange have a largely unproven group of defensive tackles, linebackers and cornerbacks but
there is some reason to be cautiously optimistic.
While small, this should be the fastest defense that Syracuse has put on the field in years. And I think that if there is one thing you really want on defense, it's speed. It doesn't guarantee success, especially if that speed comes at the expense of some size (which, in some cases, it does) but it can help to mask some other issues.
However, this defense’s speed is really secondary to the biggest reason that I believe that this group of players could surprise. The main reason for optimism here is actually the man who will be calling the plays: Scott Shafer.
Two years ago Shafer took over a defense that nobody could have looked at objectively and expected anything but a continuation of the hopelessness of the few years that preceded his arrival. Almost from day one though, the defense turned into a dominant force against the running game and it finished at the top of the Big East in that statistical category. Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith became stars overnight
thanks, in part, to Shafer's aggressive, yet simple scheme which turned them loose--much to the chagrin of many opposing quarterbacks and running backs (I suspect Doug Hogue may still play a featured role in former Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage's nightmares).
In some ways, this year's defense feels a bit like the one that Syracuse put on the field two years ago. Really, the entire defense was one massive question mark because there was no proven talent to be found aside from Arthur Jones and, to a lesser extent, Mike Holmes. Evaluating this year's defense in the preseason, there's significantly more proven talent (Jones, Marinovich, Spruill and the Thomases) and we also have the knowledge that Shafer's system is one that guys can pick up quickly.
There is one major difference though and it's this: Syracuse ended up at the bottom of the league in scoring defense because the secondary couldn't stop even the weakest passing attacks and big plays were a common occurrence. This time around, the unquestioned strength of the defense is its safeties and the talent at cornerback also seems to have been upgraded in a big way. So, assuming nothing disastrous happens there, the big question is whether the defense can assuage the concerns about its
size deficiency. If they can do that, whether by scheme or by skill, this defense could really surprise some people.
It's hard to say what kind of success this team will have with any certainty. A big step forward is a possibility, but then, so is a step backwards. There's also a chance that the Orange could turn into an even better team than they were in 2010 and have nothing more to show for it if the Big East takes a collective leap forward. The league certainly can't be any worse than it was last year so Syracuse could have a tougher path to a bowl game. Nevertheless, the bar has been raised and anything less than a
bowl will be a massive disappointment. But while anything is possible, after watching Doug Marrone hoist the Pinstripe Bowl trophy into the air on that snowy evening in December--that moment that will come to symbolize Syracuse University's return to college football prominence--I wouldn't advise betting against him or his team in 2011.
Syracuse Football picture at the Pinstripe Bowl provided by goddam.