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The Past, The Present, And The Syracuse Orange

It didn't take long for Doug Marrone to return a proud program to responsibility. What's next for Ryan Nassib, Chandler Jones and the Orange?

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NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

Yesterday, our own Spencer Hall pointed us toward a lovely post from The Run of Play that I may have otherwise missed.

The sole and entire point of sports is to enjoy sports; even if you think athletic competition has a deeper purpose, that it helps with moral instruction or enforcing community ties or whatever else, it’s only able to serve that purpose because it’s fun in the first place. If your love of soccer has brought you to a point where you’re no longer really able to see the game as something wonderful and amazing except in narrow moments of unequivocal triumph, then you are doing it wrong, no matter how many kills you rack up on the internet. On that note, it’s also not unimportant that the mind-warp of hyperpartisanship is eventually going to make you think and say things that are, let’s be frank, really f***ing stupid, and that there’s no need for you to be really f***ing stupid just to support your club. ...

So look: don’t be like this. There’s no reason to. It’s really, really easy not to be, once you decide you don’t want to. The secret is to care, I mean really care, about something other than your club. That thing can be the game itself, or the truth, or just being a reasonable person. You can care about something other than your club and still be totallysupercommitted to your club. It doesn’t mean not supporting your team through thick and thin; it just means being able to tell the difference between thick and thin, and not thinking that your favorite forum, or your group of like-minded supporters, is so important that it throws reality on the wrong end of a greater-than sign. It means doing this for fun, and not for revenge or for a sense of deep-down defining identity, even if you’re a crazy tattooed ultra. You can be a crazy tattooed ultra and still be fine, for that matter. You just can’t be an idiot.

This is a beautiful sentiment.  It is the reason I share things I love about college football every Saturday morning.  It is something I have attempted to communicate many times, but seeing this I know I have fallen short.

It is also a sentiment that would have been difficult to communicate to Syracuse fans in earnest in the middle part of the last decade.

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 BrownBen Schwartzwalder, Ernie Davis and the 1960 Cotton BowlJohn MackeyFloyd Little and Larry CsonkaArt MonkDick MacPherson coaching Don McPherson (which just confused the hell out of me).  Moose JohnstonDonovan McNabb to Marvin HarrisonDwight FreeneyThe 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.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 6-7 | Final F/+ Rk**: 57
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
3-Sep at Akron 29-3 W 20.9 - (-4.7) W
11-Sep at Washington 20-41 L 15.4 - 36.0 L
18-Sep Maine 38-14 W 25.1 - 26.4 L
25-Sep Colgate 42-7 W 43.2 - 32.9 W
9-Oct at South Florida 13-9 W 28.8 - 7.8 W
16-Oct Pittsburgh 14-45 L 23.8 - 32.2 L
23-Oct at West Virginia 19-14 W 33.1 - 17.3 W
30-Oct at Cincinnati 31-7 W 23.7 - 11.8 W
6-Nov Louisville 20-28 L 22.8 - 28.3 L
13-Nov at Rutgers 13-10 W 13.5 - 25.6 L
20-Nov Connecticut 6-23 L 12.6 - 27.7 L
27-Nov Boston College 7-16 L 29.8 - 32.8 L
30-Dec vs Kansas State 36-34 W 35.9 - 33.8 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 22.2 93 19.3 17
Adj. Points Per Game 25.3 78 23.7 33

Sometimes it takes a while to remember how to win.  On a play-by-play basis, Syracuse improved significantly in Marrone's first year.  In 2009, the Orange improved from 92nd in overall S&P+ to 64th while undergoing the Greg Paulus experiment, but their win total only improved from three to four and their F/+ ranking from 89th to 75th.  Sometimes per-play success comes before per-drive or per-game success.

In 2010, however, the Orange actually regressed in terms of play-by-play stats -- they fell from 64th to 78th in overall S&P+ -- but they learned how to win.  They improved from 75th to 57th in F/+, they improved from 1-2 in one-possession games to 4-1, and they won an epic, confusing Pinstripe Bowl over Kansas State.  In terms of Adj. Record, Syracuse probably didn't play at the level of a true, eight-win team in 2010, but ... tell that to fans who enjoyed being relevant and winning (or simply attending) bowls again.

In all, the offense faded significantly down the stretch despite the emergence of receiver Marcus Sales, but they rebounded with a ridiculously fun performance against Kansas State.  The defense trended toward regression as well, but not enough to prevent Syracuse's first eight-win season since Dwight Freeney was terrorizing QBs in 2001.  (Seriously, he had 27 TFL/sacks and 23 QB hurries that season. Good god.)


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 89 83 91
RUSHING 53 39 62 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 100 104 100 14
Standard Downs 63 73 57 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 100 88 104 106
Redzone 68 73 60
Q1 Rk 95 1st Down Rk 72
Q2 Rk 100 2nd Down Rk 87
Q3 Rk 67 3rd Down Rk 80
Q4 Rk 18

The 'Cuse had a confused offense in 2010.  They passed a hair more than average even though they weren't very good at it, and their variability was off the charts.  They grew more conservative the closer they got to the end zone (they ran 30 percent of the time on passing downs between their 26 and midfield, 40 percent of the time when they crossed midfield), and they didn't necessarily seem to trust a rather efficient running game.  They were a terrible first-half offense that slowly got better as the game progressed (and came through big-time in the fourth quarter).

At 220 pounds, Delone Carter (1,233 yards, 5.3 per carry, -4.9 Adj. POE, nine touchdowns) was a strong enough runner to perhaps wear defenses down later in games.  (A faster pace would have helped with the exhaustion factor as well.).  Carter's gone, replaced by a couple of interesting, smaller backs; his Adj. POE suggests he is rather replaceable, but we'll see about the size factor.  We'll also have to see if Syracuse understands itself a little better this fall.

The key to that, I guess, is the passing game, since 'Cuse evidently wants to pass.  Ryan Nassib (2,334 yards, 6.5 per pass, 56% completion rate, 19 TD, 8 INT) returns to 'Cuse for his senior season, and for better or worse, he's got most of last year's weapons back.  Van Chew (611 yards, 14.9 per catch, 8.5 per target, 58% catch rate, 5 TD) is perhaps one of the better receivers you've never heard of, a solid big-play threat who could benefit from a group of solid possession receivers.  It would appear that tight end Nick Provo (306 yards, 11.1 per catch) could be that possession guy, but his 56% catch rate -- quite poor for a tight end -- needs improving.

In fact, the only primary targets who caught more than 58% of the passes thrown their way were running back Antwon Bailey (75% catch rate on mostly super-short passes) and home run hitter Marcus Sales (414 yards, 15.9 per catch, 10.4 per target, 65% catch rate, 4 TD), who could improve Syracuse's offense all by himself if he has a full season like last November.  In all, Marrone felt shaky enough about this unit to bring in six new receiver recruits for the fall, so just because last year's leaders return doesn't mean they'll be this year's leaders.  Chew and Sales could be a helluva combo if consistent, though.

Other tidbits:

  • Bailey (554 yards, 4.9 per carry, -6.6 Adj. POE, 2 TD; 306 receiving yards, 8.7 per catch) and Prince-Tyson Gulley (74 yards, 5.7 per carry, +0.8 Adj. POE) appear to be the Orange's 1-2 punch at running back heading into the fall.  Bailey was obviously an interesting run-and-catch guy last year; I'm curious to see if his role changes without Carter around to take on the large portion of the carries.
  • The 'Cuse line could see solid improvement this fall; they were excellent in run blocking but terrible in pass blocking (perhaps Nassib waited far too long to get the ball out of his hand?) last year, and they return four starters, including a second-team all-conference performer at left tackle (Justin Pugh) and two seniors on the right (Andrew Tiller, Michael Hay).


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 58 64 56
RUSHING 60 62 56 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 61 65 60 57
Standard Downs 50 54 50 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 57 54 56 86
Redzone 28 24 34
Q1 Rk 66 1st Down Rk 48
Q2 Rk 22 2nd Down Rk 34
Q3 Rk 79 3rd Down Rk 84
Q4 Rk 54

Like yesterday's team, Iowa State, Syracuse made a living off of bending, bending, bending, then figuring out a way not to break.  Unlike Iowa State, however, a) Syracuse wasn't all that great at attacking the ball, and b) Syracuse figured out a way not to be horribly inefficient.  The Orange were spectacularly, admirably average on D last year, ranking between 50th and 65th in every major overall, success rate, and PPP+ sub-category.  They were great in the redzone, on second downs, and in the second quarter ... and consistently mediocre in just about every other facet of the game.

This being the case ... it's rather difficult to get too worked up about either returning or departing personnel, isn't it?  For what it's worth, the 'Cuse should be stronger around the perimeter, weaker in the middle.  Three interesting defensive ends return, including Chandler Jones (47.5 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 4 PBU) and Mikhail Marinovich, Todd's younger brother, male model and hookah enthusiast.  Plus, there is ample quality at the safety position in Phillip Thomas (75.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks) and Shamarko Thomas (52.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks).  However, tackles Anthony Perkins (3.5 TFL/sacks) and Andrew Lewis (4.5 TFL/sacks) depart, along with middle linebacker and lead play-maker Derrell Smith (93.0 tackles, 9.0 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 3 FR).  Last year, the Orange line was better against the run than in rushing the quarterback; the opposite will probably be true in 2011.

Other tidbits:

  • It always interests me when teams rank quite differently in terms of my play-by-play measure and Brian Fremeau's per-drive measure.  Syracuse's D ranked just 58th in Def. S&P+ but a much healthier 37th in Def. FEI.  (Split the difference, more or less, and you get an overall Def. F/+ ranking of 43rd.)  The main reason for this should be obvious -- redzone efficiency.  Holding teams to field goals is a solid way to end up on the right side of the "points versus expected points" equation.
  • Syracuse had a lovely total of tackles for loss in 2010 despite the mediocre numbers; it appears that opponents caught on to their aggression as well.  They ran more frequently than average on passing downs to counter the aggression.  That the Orange attacked a lot but still couldn't get to the quarterback that often is either confusing or off-putting.

Syracuse's 2010 Season Set to Music

Just put this song on in the background of your favorite Pinstripe Bowl highlights, and you're set, right?

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 81
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 65
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -4 / -3
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (7, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -1.0

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.

The Big East is a conference with an incredible number of above-average teams and, currently, no elite power.  That's good and bad, of course; there are almost no easy wins, but if you take a healthy step forward, you're just as likely to pass four teams as one.  With Louisville improving, somebody will have to assume last place this fall and in coming years, but despite less-than-amazing recruiting, it's looking less and less likely that it will be Syracuse.  That alone should be cause for celebration in upstate New York.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.