Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: There hasn't been a whole lot to cheer about at the Carrier Dome in recent years and a 5-7 finish last season was more of the same. Despite the Orange making a bowl appearance in 2010, Doug Marrone's squad took another step back last season finishing out of bowl contention, the sixth time that has happened to Syracuse in the last seven years.
The Orange got off to a good start in 2011, winning five of their first seven games, including a win against Wake Forest (36-29), an impressive rout of West Virginia (49-23) and a tough overtime loss to Rutgers (19-16). From there Syracuse fell into a tailspin, losing its next five games, four by double figures, to find itself on the outside looking in on the postseason.
Not only has Syracuse been sitting at home during the bowl season for the most part, the team has also finished last the Big East in six of the last seven seasons.
OFFENSE: One of the lone bright spots of last season was the play of quarterback Ryan Nassib. The now senior threw for 2,685 yards and 22 touchdowns, while completing 62.4 percent of his passes and throwing only 9 interceptions. It was his second straight season with at least 2,300 yards passing and the numbers should improve again this year.
"What we want to see from the quarterback position is leadership and you want to see him make everyone around him better. We are looking for that out of Ryan. We want him to take what the defense gives him and be who he is," Marrone said of his senior signal caller.
Nassib will benefit from an offensive line that has three returning starters, highlighted by All-Big East left tackle Justin Pugh. Left guard Zack Chibane and center Macky MacPherson will also be back in the trenches.
What may be detrimental to the offense, and possibly Nassib's production is the loss of running back Antwon Bailey and tight end Nick Provo. Bailey rushed for over 1,000 yards and Provo was a favorite target of Nassib's catching 51 balls for 537 yards and seven touchdowns. Even with their contributions the Orange offense was ranked near the bottom of the nation and trying to replace them may keep Syracuse there.
Jerome Smith (134 yards in 2011) will be the starter at running back, while Beckett Wales (seven career receptions) will be the primary tight end.
The rest of the receiving corps has some promise with the return of Alec Lemon, who set a school record with 68 receptions last season, while compiling 834 yards and 6 touchdowns. Marcus Sales was suspended last season but averaged 15.9 yards per catch in 2010 and is back on the roster, while touted recruit Ashton Broyld can fit in just about anywhere.
DEFENSE: Syracuse already knew it was going to need to get big improvements up and down the defensive roster especially with defensive staples like Chandler Jones gone from last season. In January that need became even more drastic with the injury to 2011 Second-Team All-Big East linebacker Marquis Spruill. The junior had surgery to repair a lower body injury, causing him to miss spring practice.
The uncertainty of Spruill's return means Dan Vaughan and Dyshawn Davis will both need to play at an even higher level. Vaughan had 72 total tackles last season which was third on the team and Davis led the squad with 10.5 tackles for a loss. Marrone has the confidence that the unit will be a strength in 2011.
"I am excited about the linebackers. We have a good group there and they have been playing well. There is good competition there."
The Orange struggled to get pressure on the quarterback last season recording a Big East worst 28 sacks as a team. Now that Jones is gone, the Orange lost their best pass rusher on the defensive line. Returning starters Jay Bromley and Deon Goggins will need to improve on the three combined sacks they had a year ago to fill the hole left by Jones.
Slowing down passing attacks was a major weakness for the Orange in 2011, as the team ranked 98th in pass defense allowing 258.3 yards per game through the air. Safety Shamarko Thomas and cornerbacks Ri'Shard Anderson and Keon Lyn all return to starting roles hoping to improve on last season's struggles.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Jonathan Fisher and Shane Raupers shared punting duties last year but neither really had much success. Fisher should be the starter after accumulating the higher yards-per-punt average (39.3). Punt returns were also a weak point for the Orange, who averaged only 3.1 yards per return.
Ross Krautman will be the starting place-kicker. The junior was fairly accurate last season (15-for-19 on field goal attempts) but lacks range as his longest field goal was only 40 yards. Jeremiah Kobena was one of the primary kick returners and had some success averaging nearly 23 yards per return.
OUTLOOK: Even without Spruill the Orange could be a surprisingly strong defensive squad, although it won't be that tough to top last year's unit. If Nassib steps into his own and the receiving corps develops around him, the Orange might shock some people.
Of course the team's brutal schedule will not help. The Orange begin the season at home against a tough Northwestern squad before facing perennial national title hopeful USC in East Rutherford. Syracuse gets a short reprieve against Stony Brook before heading on the road to face Minnesota.
Conference play begins after that and the toughest stretch coming with three road games against Rutgers, South Florida and Cincinnati. The non-conference difficulties don't stop once the Big East foes come around, as the Orange also go on the road against Missouri in the second to last week of the season.
Even with small amounts of optimism, a schedule like that will make just getting to .500 a monumental task for Syracuse. Expect the Orange to once again struggle and may not find a way out of the Big East cellar.