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Road to Recovery: Syracuse

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Great Good programs on hard times.
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Looking closely at Syracuse the last three years, not only do I find it hard to believe Greg Robinson's seat isn't any hotter than this, but given the amount of money Syracuse has shilled out for back-to-back-to-back last place finishes in the Big East, I can't begin to account for the fact that Robinson is still in charge of the self-respecting progenator of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Donovan McNabb at all.

The difference from the Dick MacPherson and Paul Pasqualoni eras is probably wider than the straight winning percentage shows: in the decade following the 11-0-1 season in 1987, the Orangemen won at least nine games six times and were Big East champions three years running with Miami on the skids from 1995-97. From 1983-2004, 22 years, 'Cuse endured all of two losing seasons, and didn't come close to falling under .500 in the nineties. After Miami and Virginia Tech defected to the ACC, Syracuse was in the best position along with West Virginia to fill the conference power vaccum; despite the bleh 6-6 overall record, Pasqualoni's last team had actually finished in a four-way tie for the league title in 2004. Into that, Robinson's first three teams are 2-19 in-conference and have ceded upward momentum to the C-USA contingent that was supposed to threaten the Big East's BCS standing. Syracuse has been easily the worst major conference program in the nation.

What Went Wrong: I'm trying to find some way to hyperbolize the across-the-board badness here, but short of entering "Aristocrats" territory, it's hard to overstate the point (family members: do not click that link). Among what I think of as the "Big Eight" stat categories (rush, pass efficiency, total and scoring offense/defense), Syracuse was in the bottom 10-15 nationally last year in every one except pass efficiency offense; 'Cuse has spent the last three finishing last or next-to-last in the Big East in all of them except passing offense, which reflects its need to throw its way out of big deficits at least as much as any proficiency through the air. Put it this way: Syracuse played three different games last year in which it allowed a single run better than its entire rushing total for the day, and that doesn't even include its 103-yard, 5-first down embarrassment at Iowa.

For the record, its finishes last year of eighth (last) in the Big East and 100th or worse nationally: rushing offense, total offense, total offense, scoring offense, rushing defense, total defense, scoring defense, pass defense, sacks and sacks allowed. Honorary members are pass efficiency defense (only 7th in-conference but 109th nationally) and turnover margin (worst in the Big East but only 96th nationwide). None of this is anomalous.

Picture, thousand words. Also, a little white is an effective buffer. Just FYI.
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What Went At Least Moderately Right: The inexplicable upset of Louisville is the only completely positive moment to date of the Robinson administration, one of very few existing pieces of evidence the Orangemen are still capable of a pulse, and even that against a disappointing team in the middle of an epic defensive slide. Other than that, though, there's like kick returns - true freshman Max Suter brought one back for a touchdown against the Cardinals and was the only first-team all-Big East pick - and lame moral victories you'd probably have to troll an enthusiastic Syracuse message board to find.

Changes, Building Blocks and Other Cautious Optimism: When he was protected (which was rare - only Notre Dame and Arizona State allowed more sacks), sophomore quarterback Andrew Robinson wasn't nearly as bad for a first-year starter as the rest of the team. He was terrific in the back-and-forth shootouts against Louisville (17-26, 423 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT) and Cincinnati (29-47, 419, 3 TD, 0 INT) and only thew seven picks all year, a good sign for his potential as a competent "game manager" type, if nothing else. As ragtag and often untenable as the running game was, it was missing `06 leader Delone Carter all year and No. 2 back Curtis Brinkley for the last third. Mike Williams is a legit talent at receiver and tore through the last five games: 31 catches for 364 yards in November alone, and a touchdown in each of the last nine. If the offensive line holds up at all, the now not-so-young skill talent is probably good enough to challenge for a bowl game on its own merits; to this end, Robinson ditched offensive coordinator Brian White for one of his old players, Mitch Browning, who orchestrated Glen Mason's offense at Kansas and the zone-blocking scheme that wreaked havoc on Big Ten fronts at Minnesota. Now if he can get his hands on Marion Barber or Laurence Maroney...

Obstacles: When they've been as unsuccessful as this group has been, the losses don't sting much, but then again, the three departing offensive line starters were never unseated by the guys filling their shoes, either. The defenses loses three of four starters in the secondary and its three best players over the last two years, Dowayne Davis, Joe Fields and Jameel McClain.

Target Date For Resumption of Glory Functional Competence: The best thing that could happen for Robinson's job security and the team's morale is a win at Northwestern to open the season in August, but that won't change SU's de facto underdog status in all seven conference games. The real test for optimism coming off another mediocre-at-best effort, and maybe to seal or extend Robinson's fate, in the Nov. 22 match against another rebuilding job, Notre Dame. 'Cuse temporarily salvaged Pasqualoni's job, and put Ty Willingham's over the fire, by trouncing ND in the Carrier Dome to close 2003; the return engagement will either have bowl implications, set the tone for a hopeful 2009 with most of the principles returning, or draw the curtain on the darkest days the Orange has known since it replaced its fine tradition of only tacitly racist warrior mascots with an amophous, flute-stealing Nerf ball.