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Know your opponent, week 2 edition: Syracuse

Breaking down any given team’s strengths and weaknesses doesn’t paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team’s win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look-ahead. It’s a little thing called “Know Your Opponent.” The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet. 

The Basics
Returning starters: Offense – 6, Defense –6
2012 record: 8-5 (5-2 Big East)
Coach: Scott Shafer, 1st year

2012 Capsule 

The first glimpse of Syracuse’s plucky Big East staying power came during week 1 last season, when the Orange quite nearly knocked off Northwestern in its home opener – and probably should have, were it not for one particularly, ahem, generous roughing the passer call on Trevor Siemian late in the fourth quarter. Moving on: the Orange tested then-No. 2 USC one week later, rebounded against Stony Brook, then dropped their last nonconference game at Minnesota. They went on to win five of seven conference games, knocked off Missouri on the road and finished their season (and Doug Marrone’s coaching tenure) by rolling West Virginia in a snowy Pinstripe Bowl.

Offensive overview

The productive passing attack devised by former coach Doug Marrone and powered by quarterback Ryan Nassib, a solid offensive line and receivers Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales will undergo some major changes this season. First, there will be a new quarterback under center, and Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen looks like the favorite to win the job (other candidates include Terrel Hunt, John Kinder and Charley Loeb). Replacing Sales and Lemon won’t be easy, but the Orange have a veteran group featuring seniors Jarrod West, Chris Clark, as well as Arkansas transfer Quinta Funderburk, ready to help provide the explosiveness and playmaking ability of their departed predecessors. Jerome Smith and Prince Tyson-Gulley will form one of the ACC’s more promising running back tandems, while the offensive line – which must replace its sturdy left wing, including first-round draft pick Justin Pugh (and left guard Zack Chibane) – will come together through competition in preseason workouts.

Defensive overview 

Whereas the offense has question marks at key positions, the defense is experienced and deep. The one loss that could stunt this unit’s production this season is safety Shamarko Thomas, who anchored the secondary and led the Orange with 88 tackles last season. Cornerbacks Ri’Shard Anderson and Keon Lyn will will help stabilize the defensive backfield, four-year starter Marquis Spruill is a reliable presence at the heart of Syracuse’s linebacking corps and tackle Jay Bromley fronts an experienced defensive tackle group. With former defensive coordinator Scott Shafer being promoted to head coach this offseason, changes on this side of the ball should be easier to manage.

Three players to know

Jeremi Wilkes, Senior S – The process of replacing Thomas starts and ends with Wilkes. In 13 starts last season, Wilkes posted 61 tackles, good for 5th best on the team, and plugged any holes left uncovered by his all-Big East safety partner. Not having Thomas by his side will force Wilkes to take on a more significant role in the back end of the defense.

Jerome Smith/Prince-Tyson Gulley, Senior (s) RB – It’s reasonable to expect some regression in the passing game this season, which means the running attack – headed by Smith and Gulley – will need to help carry this rebuilt offense through its first run in the ACC. Both players racked up more than 1,000 yards of total offense last season, and those totals should increase in 2013.

Jarrod West, Senior WR – A strong spring practice after a semi-breakout season in 2012 gives West the best shot at seeing an increased number of targets and overall production in the wake of Sales and Lemon’s departures. The Orange’s passing attack will be a work in progress, but West, who hauled in 43 passes for 588 yards next season, can help offset the turnover within the receiving corps.

Behind enemy lines: Syracuse Post-Standard football beat writer Michael Cohen (@Michael_Cohen13), on what you can expect from the Orange this season:

“Syracuse enters the 2013-14 season with a new coach, a new quarterback and a lot of questions to answer. With Doug Marrone departing for the National Football League, former defensive coordinator Scott Shafer assumed the top spot and assembled a staff quickly in January.

Now that he's settled in, his biggest challenge is choosing a quarterback to replace Ryan Nassib, a player that broke countless school records in his time as the starter. The frontrunner is Drew Allen, a transfer from Oklahoma that has the city of Syracuse buzzing. Did the Orange snare an elite quarterback to help them tackle the ACC? We'll see.

Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley, a pair of running backs that amassed 2,001 yards between them last season, will provide support for whichever quarterback wins the job.

In addition to running backs, the linebackers are another strength. Seventy-five percent of the defensive line must be replaced, along with strong safety Shamarko Thomas, who was the heart and soul of the defense and a draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In all, Syracuse seems headed toward a mediocre season. The non-conference schedule (Penn State, Northwestern) isn't easy, and the schedule overall is front-loaded. It could make for a rough start in a new conference with a new coach.

Prediction: 5-7” 

Final thoughts

I don’t know any Syracuse football fans personally, but if I did, I’d be interested to get a feel for the general emotional climate and expectations about the upcoming season. With a new coach, a new quarterback and a new league, Orange fans have plenty to be excited about. That excitement could just as easily be measured apprehension – they might have serious doubts about the short-term hardship the 2013 season may bring. Any one of the three changes the Orange will navigate this season would be difficult to predict. Trying to cope with all three in one fell swoop could make for a rough transition year. The ACC will offer tougher (if only marginally) weekly competition than the old Big East, but the Orange are equipped to handle it over the long-term, if not immediately this season.