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NCAA Football Preview - Syracuse Orange

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Scott Shafer's first season in Syracuse was a successful one, as the Orange finished 7-6 overall, including a bowl victory.

The team got off to a slow start, with back-to-back losses to a pair of Big Ten foes in Penn State (23-17) and Northwestern (48-27), but evened its record by the end of September with routs of both Wagner (54-0) and Tulane (52-17).

Syracuse finished its first ACC slate at 4-4, with some huge wins and humbling losses along the way. Setbacks to Clemson (49-14), Georgia Tech (56-0) and Florida State (59-3) showed just how much work Shafer still needs to do to get Syracuse to where he wants the team to be, but two ACC road wins at NC State (24-10) and Maryland (20-3) showed the Orange were willing to compete hard.

The team needed a big win over Boston College (34-31) in the regular-season finale to earn bowl eligibility, and closed out the campaign on a promising note, topping Minnesota (21-17) in the Texas Bowl.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: - The Orange return eight starters on the offensive side of the ball, led by junior quarterback Terrel Hunt, who took over the reins of the team around week 4 a year ago. A dual threat with the ability to win with his arm or legs, Hunt finished 2013 having completed 61.2 percent of his passes, for 1,638 yards and 10 touchdowns, while ranking second on the team in rushing (500 yards) with seven more scores.

Gone is leading rusher Jerome Smith (914 yards, 12 TDs), but senior Prince- Tyson Gulley (456 yards, four TDs) will take on a bigger role this time around and a deep pool of runners like Adonis Ameen-Moore and George Morris should keep the backfield fresh.

As far as the passing game, Hunt has the luxury of the top two receivers returning to the fold in Ashton Broyld (6-3, 223) and Jarrod West (6-2, 209). Both big targets, Broyld led the team with 52 catches, for 452 yards in 2013, while West added 26 catches, for 397 yards and one TD. Sophomore speedster Brisly Estime (5-9, 172) could become a favorite target as well.

An improved passing game is something Shafer is counting on this season.

"We've worked a lot on it. Obviously, we weren't very proficient in the passing game. We got better towards the end of the season. I was happy with the way we finished the season. I thought both Terrel and the wide receivers did a nice job finishing up with the victory over Minnesota in the Texas bowl, but we need to take it to the next level, to get to the next level.

We're always going to really work hard to run the football. I believe in running the football, I believe in stopping the run. I think that's where it starts with our philosophy. But in this day and age, you've got to be able to open it up, and we put the onus on our passing game, our wide receivers, to take their game up."

Only center Macky MacPerson (second-team All-ACC) has moved on up front, leaving a veteran offensive line to pave the way in 2014. Leading the charge is junior left tackle Sean Hickey (6-5, 300), who earned All-ACC honorable mention last season.

DEFENSE: The Orange will benefit from a strong nucleus returning on the defensive side of the football as well, although All-ACC linebacker Marcus Spruill and star defensive tackle Jay Bromley aren't among that group. Still, seven starters are back spread amongst all levels of the unit.

The star among the group is junior free safety Durrell Eskridge, who earned third-team All-ACC in 2013. The 6-3, 203-pound junior is a force in the secondary and posted team-highs in tackles (78) and interceptions (4) a year ago.

Taking over for Spruill in terms of leadership in the linebacking corps are seniors Cameron Lynch (5-11, 226), who finished second on the team last year in tackles (69) and tied for second in sacks (4) and Dyshawn Davis (6-2, 221), who posted 49 tackles and 2.5 sacks.

Up front, senior end Robert Welsh (6-3, 248) could be in store for a big season after recording four sacks and one interception a year ago. Nose tackle Eric Crume (6-0, 296) and end Micah Robinson (6-4, 270) will bolster the play along the line as well.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game will feature junior PK Ryan Norton and junior P Riley Dixon. Norton was 10-of-15 in field-goal tries a year ago, with a long of 44 yards. Riley handled the punting duties for the most part, averaging a steady 42.2 yards per punt, while placing 21 of his 75 punts inside the 20- yard line.

OUTLOOK: The start of the season is a little less challenging this time around for Syracuse, which opens with FCS foe Villanova, then has a bye, followed by a road trip to Central Michigan. The rest of the non-conference slate consists of Maryland at the Carrier Dome and Notre Dame at MetLife Stadium to end September. The Orange have a realistic shot at three wins there and could run the table in non-league play if everything pans out.

Competing in the top-heavy Atlantic Division is never easy and Syracuse gets three monsters in Louisville, Florida State and Clemson all before the end of October. Chances are, the Orange will be buried in a conference hole heading into November, but a strong finish against foes like NC State, Duke, Pittsburgh and Boston College could have the team eyeing up another .500 season in-conference and a third straight bowl appearance.