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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Syracuse

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A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Syracuse...
2006 Record
4-8 (1-6 Big East, Eighth)
Past Five Years
21-38 (10-25 Big East)
Returning Starters, Roughly
10 (6 Offense, 4 Defense)
Best Player
Jameel McClain moved down from linebacker and was just another name somewhere along the preseason depth chart at defensive end until he hustled his way to seven sacks in the first five games. He only had two and a half through the league schedule, but that was still good enough to lead the Big East, rank second in tackles for loss and get tacked on to the all-conference team.
Bizarre Tradition
I’d never been certain exactly why the university did away with "Orangemen" (and "Orangewomen") for the very odd distinction of being simply "Orange" – I had assumed it had to do with the standard political correctness, related to unfamiliar connotations of age-old political violence in Ireland, and Syracuse did retire its "Saltine Warrior" mascot for sensitivity’s sake in the seventies. But the move was actually made because "Orange" is an odd distinction: lots of teams wear orange, but Syracuse owns it, and thus in 2004 elected to become the first school I’m aware of (certainly the first in a very long time) to change its mascot explicitly for marketing purposes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Of course not. As for "Orangemen," it stems from the school’s 19th Century decision to adopt orange as its color rather than anything ethnic or political, which is pretty boring. It still identifies enough with the name to sue a basketball team in Florida bold enough to dub itself the "Orange Men" two years after the university made the switch.
What's Changed: One luxury the offense has dramatically missed in Greg Robinson's first two seasons is anything on the order of a big play threat (see below). It's one thing to be inconsistent in a scheme - the dreaded "West Coast," headed last year by coordinator Brian White - that requires machine-like performance in the passing game, but it's another to lack the athletes to make anything out of it on the occasions things go more or less right. About last year's Orange skill guys, Phil Steele had to say PS#188, PS#118, PS#145JC, etc.

Turned out those guys mostly sat the bench for a more dynamic group of freshmen and sophomores who didn't improve the offense much (again, below) but did flash enough to stoke the "playmaker" fires so eagerly burning at upstate outposts, lonely trails and message boards. Curtis Brinkley and true freshman Delone Carter shared carries and were solidly productive with more attempts in the Orange's wins - against Illinois, Miami of Ohio, UConn and Wyoming, for the record - and the three most productive wide receivers were a pair of promising newcomers (Mike Williams and Taj Johnson) and Randy Moss' alliteratively-named cousin (Rice Moss). Sophomore Tom Ferron came from defensive line to tight end and had more catches than any of them. So that number was a paltry 30 last year; the point is, excluding the quarterback, 83 percent of offensive touches return, and most of those were touching it for the first time at this level. The ball, I mean. That is, they had touched balls in high school, but not...I should say, they were comfortable handling a ball before, but not college balls, under greater pressure to perform.

Anyway, moving on...

What's the Same: There are so many awful things to write about the offense the past two years. It can't run (97th in `06). It can't throw (103rd). It can't score (102nd). It can't protect the passer (116th). Through the team's first five conference games, it averaged just shy of two yards per carry and ran for one touchdown and was 12 minutes away, before a fourth quarter field goal against UConn gave SU exactly 20 points, from going two straight years without scoring out of the teens in any conference game. By merely taking the vast majority of the snaps, Patterson was the closest thing `Cuse has had to consistency at quarterback since Donovan McNabb graduated nineyears ago, and he bids adieu with little gnashing or the grieving, shrieking Italian exchange students throwing themselves at his feet McNabb commanded during his exit. Well, that may be happening, anyway - I'm not critiquing Patterson's other game - but not because of his passing.

So, as Jameel McClain says: "It wouldn't be Syracuse football without a quarterback controversy." Some things never graduate. Joe Fields was still listed as a challenger at the position entering last season, where he'd started his first game with high expectations as a true freshman in 2004 but only completed 39 percent of his passes with six interceptions in very limited competition (57 attempts) with Patterson over two years. Coaches shrewdly recognized his penchant for killing a passing game might better serve the team in the secondary, where Fields started every game at safety, led the team in interceptions and was second in tackles. He's not likely to move back. That leaves the position to Andrew Robinson, of no relation to the head coach except, most likely, as most influential arbiter of his future. Young Andy made no contributions of any signficance aside from a few redshirt-wasting snaps at the ends of double digit losses at West Virginia, South Florida and Rutgers, but is big (6-3, 220) and allegedly a better fit than his immediate predecessors in the highly orchestrated West Coast, stand-and-deliver fashion White prefers.

Where Joe Fields goes, interceptions follow.
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Baby Steps: Robinson planted all-Big East linebacker Kelvin Smith in the middle of the defense the last two years, with the result that Smith made a ton of tackles four to seven yards downfield. That role will fall to someone else now - all three of the linebacker positions will - but they're not going to do any worse against the run than last year's group. West Virginia's gruesome 457-yard romp in October was the cap on a cavalcade of huge rushing games by decent offenses on the Orange front seven; it's broken down explicitly here: against winning teams, the Orange allowed an astonishing, untenable 5.62 yards per carry. The Mountaineers averaged ten and Pittsburgh and Louisville more than six apiece, and all teams gained about 5.5 per first down run.

All of that is a significant regression from already bad 2005 marks and bound to improve, less because of the returning starters on the line than because, again, it couldn't get very much worse. It was only by the grace of a pretty good pass rush and a very good turnover margin - a common pair, I think - that opponents actually scored less than they have overall against SU since 2001. Numbers like +11 are tough to duplicate, so a defense that's tougher to move the ball against might not necessarily reduce scoring without the same fortune. But it will still be an improvement.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter: Improving! Working hard! Making progress! Depth charts are day-to-day, and Robinson is downplaying a potential surge for the quarterback job by ex-walk-on Cameron Dantley; ESPN's quarterback profile fails to mention any controversy. But the Orange have finally admitted that strong safety Dowayne Davis played the entire 2006 season with a broken toe, helping explain an "uneven" performance that he described as "almost like I was on one leg." The one-legged man was still third on the team in tackles, after finishing second as a sophomore (game by game, I think his season looks very consistent, statistically, though blown coverages aren't in the box score).

It's not necessarily an "optimistic" observation when the starting safeties are considered the strength of a defense, but Davis and Fields were its most productive members as juniors and are good candidates for some preseason magazine love.

Syracuse on YouTube: The Orangemen were three years from their only national championship behind Ernie Davis in 1956, but planted the seeds of success with a season-opening upset at East Coast power Maryland. There are a lot of interesting elements in this clip of that game (a megaphone-wielding cheerleader runs onto the field at one point during a play), but none moreso than Jim Brown on a long third quarter run at the end, a shockingly powerful, modern-looking figure leaving the rest of his era in the dust:

I think the narrator is Dick Enberg.

See also: A promo for the student-produced "Syracuse After Hours" featuring the worthwhile "Jurassic Mark" (click here for the SAH crew's Benny Hill-inspired campus tour and here for a less successful venture into football-related hype); Otto the Orange, Shako Thief; and try to decipher this chant against an undetermined opponent last year. My ears want to accept the obvious, but the style seems too traditional and sanctioned for that.

Best-Case: The opener against Washington, at home, will be a critical barometer for morale and very slim bowl chances. Any realistic postseason hopes require a win there or a huge, unlikely upset later I'm not even willing to grant in the best case. There's a foreboding early trip to Iowa and the three toughest conference games right at the front, but it SU can get by toss-ups with Washington and should-be-better Illinois and win games it should against Miami of Ohio and Buffalo, a 4-4 record entering the stretch November run is optimistic. If it can get to that point, a split of the final four - South Florida and Cincinnati come to the Carrier Dome - would leave `Cuse at the magic 6-6 mark.

Worst-Case: This team's not far enough out of the woods to have the jump on anybody in the conference; SU's 1-13 in two years under Robinson, in fact, and only got closer than ten points in one of those losses, so it's still a likely underdog in every league game, including UConn, which despite last year's loss in Syracuse has been arguably the better team each of the last five years. That means it could lose every league game. I don't think there will be any problems with Buffalo coming to the Carrier Dome, but even if you grant a win at Miami of Ohio, that's only 2-10 if the breaks dont fall against Washington and Illinois. I doubt Robinson survives in that case.

Non-Binding Forecast: The rest of the Big East seems on the cusp of a breakthrough, and Syracuse seems stagnant: no stars, no particularly hyped recruits*, high player turnover. There's a lot of youth, but not much evidence it will amount to future success. The Orange spent so long at the fringe of the top 25, occasionally better but rarely off-the-map worse, a reversion to that mean seems inevitable. But against who? It still seems this team is in the transition mode of trying to convert bad losses into close ones, just to have a chance to win more games. The average margin of defeat in conference games last year was 15 points, two touchdowns, and if that number becomes one touchdown, that's a positive step. But if Syracuse manages to add more than one to last year's four wins, acknowledge Robinson has it yanking the hell out of its bootstraps.

Winning, losing...Greg Robinson asks: In the end, isn't it really about love?
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* - To ward off inevitably irate Syracuse message boards, understand by "hype" that I mean national expectations, not local. We understand your excitement about Romale Tucker, but don't expect it to affect the football-watching public at large. Maybe it will, and I'll be an idiot then, as usual. But not yet.

Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments...

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army