The last four years under head coach Greg Robinson have been tough for Syracuse football fans. In only a few short years they've seen their once proud program become the laughing stock of BCS schools; they've seen one of the most unique venues in football, the Carrier Dome, turn into an empty tomb, and they've had to suffer through watching former bottom feeders Rutgers and UConn become contenders in their stead.
But that's all about to end.
The firing of Greg Robinson and the subsequent hiring of Syracuse University alum, Doug Marrone will mark the beginning of an Orange resurgence in 2009, and I've got five reasons why.
1. A favorable schedule:
This season the Orange won't be traveling as much as they've become accustomed to the past few years. Syracuse will only have to leave the comfort of playing at home a total of four times in 2009, with their other eight games all being played in the Dome.
Away games will be played against Penn State, Pittsburgh, Louisville and UConn to conclude the year.
Doug Marrone's team will have some tough games this season, including three games against Big Ten foes Minnesota, Penn State, and Northwestern to open the season. Overall though, Syracuse's schedule should get a bit easier than it was last year.
They will once again host the Akron Zips of the MAC, and they will play Football Championship Subdivision (formerly D1-AA) team Maine.
If Marrone manages to improve this team at all, Syracuse should have no problem beating both Akron and Maine, and they may even be able to steal a win against Minnesota or Northwestern who are both coming to the Dome.
Also working in Syracuse's favor is playing in the weak Big East.
The Big East is generally considered to be the worst of the BCS conferences, and the league could be weaker than ever this season. Nearly every member of the conference lost key players to graduation or the NFL draft at the conclusion of last year, and they will be looking at rebuilding years.
The Big East is not the SEC. It's member schools don't lose players like Pat White, LeSean McCoy, Mike Teel, Kenny Britt, or Donald Brown and expect to simply reload. Some of these teams will be vulnerable, and it will give the Orange more opportunities to win conference games this season than they have in several years.
2. The Return of Mike Williams:
After a season away from the team due to an academic suspension, wide receiver Mike Williams has returned.
Williams was far and away the best player the Orange had during the 2006 and 2007 seasons. In 2007 Williams tied the school record for receptions in a season with 60 and had 10 touchdown receptions which ranks third in school history for a season. He had a team high 837 total yards and was named second team all-conference.
His nine consecutive games with a touchdown reception is still the longest streak going in the FBS division.
Williams will command a double-team from opposing defense, and it should help to open things up for the running game, as well as the other receivers on the field.
Donte Davis emerged as a solid possession receiver last season and he was surrounded by other quality receivers like Lavar Lobdell and Marcus Sales, but the Orange desperately needed a big play threat. Mike Williams will fill that need and it could help Syracuse become much more dynamic on offense.
3. A solid stable of running backs:
Last season Curtis Brinkley emerged from a pack of quality backs and ran for over 1,000 yards for the Orange. In 2009, The Orange will be without Brinkley's services, but they still boast a considerable amount of talent at the running back position.
First on the pre-Spring depth chart is junior Delone Carter.
Carter is now two years removed from what could have been a devastating hip injury that he received during spring practice before his sophomore year. After sitting out the entire 2007 season, he returned to the field last year and played sparingly.
The former Mr. Football of Ohio played well in his limited playing time, but he was once again derailed when he pulled his hamstring during a loss to Penn State. When he went down, Carter became an after-thought as Curtis Brinkley solidified his spot as the team's feature back.
On the year, Carter managed 137 rushing yards on 23 carries for a respectable 6.0 yards a carry.
As a freshman, Carter displayed right away what a dynamic runner he is. That season he lead the team in rushing with 713 yards on 156 carries (4.6 per) and four touchdowns while splitting the workload with Curtis Brinkley. His 713 yards was the second highest ever by a freshman at Syracuse, behind Joe Morris. Following his extremely successful freshman campaign, Carter was expected to become the next great running back for Syracuse but those expectations had to be put on hold when he dislocated his hip during the following spring practice.
Carter will be looking to get back on track in a big way this season and could shine in Doug Marrone's new offense.
Right behind Carter is true sophomore Antwon Bailey who came out of nowhere for Syracuse last season.
Bailey became the change of pace back behind Brinkley mid-way through last season and really impressed. He solidified his position as a contender for the starting job this year when he went off for 126 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries (7.9 per) in a win at Notre Dame in November.
He finished the season with 221 rushing yards on 33 carries for 6.7 yards per carry and two touchdowns.
Likely backing up Carter and Bailey will be Averin Collier, the highly touted prospect from Rochester who red-shirted last season.
Collier was a four-star recruit and the 12th ranked back in the class of 2008 according to Scout.com. The talented underclassmen could push for serious playing time this season, particularly if Carter is unable to stay healthy.
Doug Hogue, the team's second leading rusher in 2008 is likely switching to linebacker, but it's possible he could be called upon to run the ball if the need arises.
4. Improving defense:
The decision by Greg Robinson to play plenty of underclassmen on defense may have hurt his chances last year, but there is a chance it could pay huge dividends this season for coach Marrone.
The strength of this year's defense will be the line, anchored by first team all-conference nose tackle Arthur Jones.
Jones was a man amongst boys last season, but this year he will be leading a veteran squad on the defensive line. Listed as starters alongside him on the spring depth chart are juniors Jared Kimmel and Andrew Lewis as well as sophomore Mikhail Marinovich. Other guys to keep an eye on will be junior Bud Tribbey and redshirt freshman Chandler Jones (Arthur Jones' brother).
This years corp of linebackers could be the fastest and most athletic that the Orange have had in years. On only the second day of spring practice, Doug Marrone pulled the trigger on a long speculated move to switch Doug Hogue over to outside linebacker. Coming out of high school, Hogue was recruited by the likes of Penn State to play linebacker and many believe the reason he came to Syracuse was because Greg Robinson promised him the chance to be a running back.
Hogue will be teaming with the outside linebacker, junior Derrell Smith who was second on the team in tackles last season, and junior middle linebacker Mike Mele who was third on the team in tackles. The group will likely be backed up by senior Mike Stenclik, juniors Parker Cantey and Dan Sheeran (who was also moved over from wide receiver), and sophomore Ryan Gillum.
The secondary could be the x-factor of Syracuse's upcoming season. If this unit can exceed expectations, then the Orange should be looking at a pretty solid defense.
Listed as the starting corners on the spring depth chart are junior Nico Scott and sophomore Kevyn Scott. Backing them up will be sophomores Matt Reid and Grant Mayes.
In the secondary, noted return specialist, junior Max Suter is listed as the starting strong safety and he will be backed up by junior Randy McKinnon. At the free safety spot, junior Mike Holmes will start in front of sophomore Dorian Graham.
Several of these players have shown flashes of greatness at times, but they've lacked consistency as a unit. Mike Holmes and Max Suter should be the strength of the secondary, as both now have plenty of experience and have shown themselves to be fairly consistent players. Holmes in particular is a tremendous athlete who started at cornerback as a freshman, and spent time at both cornerback and safety last season as a sophomore.
There is plenty of talent and athleticism in the Syracuse secondary, the key will be overcoming their youth and hopefully taking a few steps forward in their development since last season. The secondary, and the defense as a whole showed signs of improvement near the end of last year, now it will be up to the new coaching staff to see if they can get them to the next level.
5. Doug Marrone > Greg Robinson
Even though Doug Marrone is entirely unproven as a head coach coming off his previous job as the offensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints, it's hard to imagine he could possibly be any worse than Greg Robinson.
Greg Robinson's press conferences, along with the team's play, often left fans with the feeling that he was in a little over his head. Thus far, that doesn't seem to be the case with Doug Marrone.
Coaching at Syracuse is Doug Marrone's self proclaimed dream job. He's a former offensive lineman at Syracuse and he's said that he's been preparing himself to take over at Syracuse ever since he got into coaching. According to athletic director Daryl Gross, Marrone impressed a committee charged with choosing Robinson's replacement by laying out a detailed plan to "rejuvenate, not rebuild" the Orange, and it even included information on how he would attack the defenses of Syracuse's Big East rivals.
The man has a plan, which is already more than you could say about Greg Robinson.
Another difference, Marrone has already established his insistence on discipline.
Following the start of spring practice, last season's starting quarterback, senior Cam Dantley talked about some differences between the current staff and the last.
"A lot of discipline, and I can tell it has been good for us," Dantley said. "At first, you can tell people weren’t sure. It was different for them. Last year we maybe could get away with things that maybe we can’t get away with this year. Players have to adjust and know that we attack this like a job. Every day we have to come here and get things done and do what we have to do to get better. The coaches are just preaching a lot of discipline and attention to detail."
Delone Carter echoed Dantley's thoughts.
“It’s just like a new year, we’re done rebuilding, and we’re here now," the junior tailback said. "The coaching staff is incredible, they’re perfectionists. It’s being run professionally and in a business-like manner.”
Once aboard, Marrone set to work building his staff. He brought back from Robinson's staff defensive line coach Derrick Jackson and fellow Syracuse alum, linebacker coach Dan Conley. He then hired an impressive list of coaches from a variety of backgrounds like former Clemson offensive coordinator Rob Spence to head the offense, former Michigan defensive coordinator Scott Shafer to lead the defense and former Tennessee coaches Stan Drayton and Greg Adkins to coach the running backs and the offensive line.
Obviously turning around a team that won a total of 10 games during Greg Robinson's four year tenure will be no easy task. All things considered though, if Doug Marrone is anything close to the savior that Orange fans are hoping for then 2009 should at least mark the team's return to competitiveness.
And why not? As Marrone, the spark of hope for Syracuse fans said, "I cannot fail! I cannot fail! My only option is to win! That's what I'm here to do."