2012 Syracuse Football Preview: Peasants And Stalled Momentum

CINCINNATI - OCTOBER 30: Ryan Nassib #12 of the Syracuse Orange gives instructions to his team during the Big East Conference game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Nippert Stadium on October 30 2010 in Cincinnati Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Syracuse's momentum under Doug Marrone hit a bit of a snag in 2011; can Ryan Nassib and company rebound against a rougher schedule? Related: Syracuse's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore.

For more on Cuse football, visit Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, plus SB Nation New York. And Big East Coast Bias, for the time being.

Looking at the results of every fifth season gives you a rather accurate portrayal of the ups-and-downs of Syracuse's last 50 years of football.

  • 1967: 8-2. Ben Schwartzwalder's program maintains a high level after the success of the late-1950s.
  • 1972: 5-6. Schwartzwalder's legendary run limps to a close. (Schwartzwalder, by the way, has to be considered one of college football's most underrated coaches. But that's another piece for another time.)
  • 1977: 6-5. Mostly mediocrity under Frank Maloney.
  • 1982: 2-9. Dick MacPherson's tenure starts slowly.
  • 1987: 11-0-1. The 'Cuse almost snags a national title and kick starts an extended run of success.
  • 1992: 10-2. The run continues under Paul Pascqualoni.
  • 1997: 9-4. Another Big East title.
  • 2002: 4-8. As with Schwartzwalder, Pasqualoni's run does not finish strong.
  • 2007: 2-10. The four-year tenure of Greg Robinson is a disaster.
  • 2012: ?

In this week's mailbag, SI's Stewart Mandel referenced a piece he wrote in the summer of 2007, in which he laid out college football's landscape according to tiers -- the elitest of the elite were Kings (Alabama, Michigan, et cetera), the second tier were Barons, the third were Knights, et cetera. It was a sign, both of how things can change rather dramatically over time and how things have changed dramatically for Syracuse. In the summer of 2007, Mandel wrote:

Knights

Arizona State, Arkansas, Boston College, Cal, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas State, Maryland, Michigan State, Missouri, N.C. State, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, Oregon, Oregon State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, Stanford, Syracuse*, South Carolina, Texas Tech, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington State.

* In normal times, Syracuse would qualify as one of the barons, but they're just so darn bad and so irrelevant right now.

Just five years ago, it felt odd that Syracuse was any lower than a Baron. But they have spent most of recent history in the fourth tier, Peasants.

Five seasons after the low point of the Greg Robinson era (yes, they fared worst in his first season, but one should write off the transition year), what does Syracuse have in store for 2012? How far will the obviously competent (but perhaps not amazing) Doug Marrone be able to advance the Orange after an absolutely dreadful few years in upstate New York (they went just 14-45 from 2005-08)?

We always like to think of improvement as linear -- you improve one year, improve a little more the next, et cetera -- but the Orange took a somewhat unpredictable step backwards last fall. And in the Big East, which features nothing but decent-not-great teams, regression can mean that you fall all the way to the bottom of the conference. Because of how poor the program was at the end of the Greg Robinson regime, Syracuse's five-year averages are still the worst in the Big East, and they have not yet completely proven they are ready to rebound with too much velocity. Because of that, this becomes something of a moment-of-truth season for Marrone's tenure. He almost certainly won't get fired, not unless his team goes about 1-11 or so, but after a year that saw his program lose its momentum, he needs to figure out how to get it back.


Related: Check out Syracuse's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Syracuse last May:

This is a program with as much history as any northeastern program not named Penn State (and hell, they can at least compete with PSU in that regard as well). Jim Brown. Ben Schwartzwalder, Ernie Davis and the 1960 Cotton Bowl. John Mackey. Floyd Little and Larry Csonka. Art Monk. Dick MacPherson coaching Don McPherson (which just confused the hell out of me). Moose Johnston. Donovan McNabb to Marvin Harrison. Dwight Freeney. The Carrier Dome (I'm a sucker for unique venues).

This is also a program that was simply dreadful during the Greg Robinson years. Only once between 2005 and 2008 did Syracuse finish with more than three wins or rank better than 89th in F/+ (4-8, 69th in 2006). In that span, only Duke had a worse major conference program. A team with potentially the most history in the Big East was significantly dragging down the Big East's averages.

Enter Doug Marrone. While he still has quite a road to hoe when it comes to returning Syracuse to college football's upper echelon, in just two years on the job, he has at least returned them to respectability. Syracuse ranked 75th in F/+ in 2009, then broke through with an 8-5 season, ranking 57th in 2010. Improvement has been incremental but potentially sustainable, and it's quite possible that Syracuse fans can once again find the joy in being Syracuse fans. […]

They have yet to catch back up to the rest of the Big East, but Syracuse is making their way back toward average. Don't expect any incredible surge this year, but Marrone has enough pieces in place to continue the slow-but-steady ascent, and the schedule should comply nicely. Though the Orange will likely be projected in the No. 50-70 range, they should still begin the season 5-1, with home wins over Wake Forest, Rhode Island, Toledo and Rutgers and a win at Tulane. From there, they should at least be able to scrape out a sixth win and a second straight bowl bid.

Syracuse did indeed start with a decent record, but red flags were evident from the start. They needed overtime to take out Wake Forest in the opener, barely crept by Rhode Island, needed a little referee magic to get by Toledo, and beat Tulane by just a field goal. They unexpectedly whipped West Virginia on October 21, but things went south quickly, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

First Five Games: Syracuse 27.0 Adj. PPG, Opponents 25.7 (plus-1.3) | Record: 3-2
Last Seven Games: Opponents 30.4 Adj. PPG, Syracuse 27.9 (minus-2.5) | Record: 2-5

A 4-2 record in one-possession games kept the overall damage minimal -- the Orange still went 5-7 instead of, say, 3-9 -- but the team fell to 71st in the F/+ rankings. Syracuse returns quite a bit, but anytime you fail to sustain your gains, so to speak, your ceiling becomes a little bit uncertain.

Offense

Syracuse's overall regression was mostly the fault of a shaky defense; in all, the offense took a decent step forward, from 82nd in Off. F/+ to 68th. The unit still isn't where many may have thought it would be three years into Marrone's tenure (Marrone came to town with an offense-heavy reputation), but forward steps are forward steps.

The offense was a bit of a pass-first outfit -- they ran just 53 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent) and 27 percent on passing downs (national average: 33 percent). That doesn't mean they were particularly good at passing the ball, but they tried. Ryan Nassib, in town for what seems like his 19th year of eligibility this fall (Donovan McNabb beat him out for the starting job in their freshman year, right?), did put together some decent peripherals: he completed 62 percent of his passes and threw 22 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. However, most of his completions didn't really go anywhere (10.4 yards per completion), and he was sacked a bit too much considering he wasn't throwing a lot of intermediate or deep passes. In all, what is basically an efficiency offense needs to rank higher than 73rd in Passing Success Rate+ to succeed at a high level.

The skill position portion of the roster undergoes a decent amount of change this fall, but the change in quality should be minimal. Gone are workhorse back Antwon Bailey, receivers Van Chew and Dorian Graham, and tight end Nick Provo; but their production was replaceable. Bailey rushed for 1,051 yards, but his minus-8.1 Adj. POE suggests he was a little more than a touchdown worse than the average back. Meanwhile, Chew was a solid target (8.3 yards per target), but his likely replacement, senior Marcus Sales, likely has a higher ceiling. Sales averaged 10.4 yards per target in 2010 and capped his season with a five-catch, 172-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Pinstripe Bowl. He was suspended for the 2011 season for a drug arrest but returned to the team this spring. He is automatically the team's best deep threat, and if he returns to the form with which he teased Syracuse fans late in 2010, he raises the ceiling of the offense a decent amount.

(Another player who could raise the ceiling: incoming freshman Ashton Broyld, an athletic quarterback from Rochester who could see time at every skill position this fall.)

Sales is, in theory, capable of replacing Chew, while backs Jerome Smith, Prince-Tyson Gulley and Adonis Ameen-Moore should be more than capable of replacing Bailey. The Orange have fielded a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past four seasons (despite mediocre advanced numbers); getting a fifth might be difficult, simply because this could be a committee approach. Gulley likely has the highest upside of the bunch, but he missed two-thirds of last season with a broken collar bone and was listed second on the post-spring depth chart. Jerome Smith is listed as the starter, but his 2011 stats (3.6 yards per carry, 0.6 highlight yards per carry) raise questions about his upside. The best part about The Cuse's run game last year was actually the offensive line, which ranked 11th in Adj. Line Yards and featured two all-conference performers and four second-year starters. All-conference guard Andrew Pugh is gone, but the Orange still return four players with starting experience (63 career starts), including all-conference guard Justin Pugh. The line should be solid again in 2012, though it probably needs to improve in terms of pass protection (that, and Ryan Nassib needs to learn to throw the ball in more prompt fashion).

Defense

Syracuse's defense was good at almost nothing and bad at almost nothing in 2011. They were above average against the run and on passing downs, below average against the pass and on standard downs. They ranked between 40th and 80th in nearly every advanced category. In fact, it is rather difficult to figure out what to say beyond that. The line was solid, the back seven less so.

It hurts, then, to see that almost all of their personnel losses this offseason come up front. Gone are the top three ends (Chandler Jones, Torrey Bell and Mikhail Marinovich). Spring brought some encouraging developments in this regard -- tackle Jay Bromley was possibly the best player on the field during the spring game, and former tackle Deon Goggins took well to his move to end. Depth beyond these two might be an issue, but there is hope, and junior college transfers Zian Jones (tackle) and Markus Pierce-Brewster (an end, and yet another hyphenated player) should join the rotation soon enough.

Even if the line were to regress a little bit, the back seven could make up for it. Every linebacker of consequence returns, including intriguing sophomore Dyshawn Davis. Davis recorded just 35.0 tackles last year, but 10.5 of them were for a loss. Davis' counterparts in the starting lineup, Dan Vaughn and Marquis Spruill, recorded a combined 15.0 as well. Syracuse wants to play aggressively up front, but they were only sporadically successful at it last year. Still, this is one of the deeper, stronger units in the Big East.

The secondary needs a little bit of work, however. Syracuse defensive backs picked off only nine passes last year, and eight of them belonged to players no longer with the team (outstanding safety Phillip Thomas and cornerback Kevyn Scott). The top two returning corners, Keon Lyn and Ri'Shard Anderson, combined to break up just five passes last year and intercept none. Sophomore Brandon Reddish had a solid spring, however, and could break into the starting lineup.

As a whole, the defense should have a bit more upside than it did last year, but how much will depend on how well a reconstructed line can maintain its spring momentum.

Defining Success

After a year away from the postseason, one would assume that success in 2012 would be defined simply by a return to a bowl game. The schedule might not cooperate very much, however. The Orange have only five true home games (their sixth is a trip to the New Meadowlands to face USC), four of which are against teams projected higher than them. In fact, they play just two teams projected lower than them all season: Stony Brook and Minnesota. The 'Cuse will need to overachieve to reach a bowl, so I'll draw the success-or-not line at a more conservative five wins.

Prognosis

Entering Year 4 of the Doug Marrone era, I am not sure what to think. It took him just two years to lug Greg Robinson's program remnants to a bowl game, but the Orange took a somewhat unexpected step backwards last year. There is average-to-solid talent everywhere (Ryan Nassib, Prince-Tyson Gulley, Alec Lemon, Marcus Sales, Justin Pugh, the linebackers) but very few standouts. And when you have been bowl eligible just once in the last seven years, it is up to you to prove that your one lovely season wasn't simply a fluke. I like this team a little more than their final F/+ projections probably will… but do I like them enough to find six wins on a schedule that includes USC, Missouri and a host of average-to-decent Big East opponents? I can't say I do.

For more on Cuse football, visit Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, plus SB Nation New York.

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