Well, this weekend is the start of another Syracuse football season. I’ve always looked forward to this much more than basketball season. I’d like to pretend that it’s personal history. My father was a football season ticket holder when I was growing up, and I went to many more football games over the years than basketball games.
I have great memories trudging up the hill from the parking garage on Adams on crisp autumn Saturdays to our seats in the upper level of the Dome to watch the likes of Donovan McNabb, Quadry Ismail, Kirby DarDar and Marvin Harrison lead the Orangemen to that inevitable 8-4 season it seemed to have every year.
The truth is, however, I’m a glutton for punishment. You can call it sports masochism, but every team I really love is terrible. The Knicks are perennially mediocre. George Washington basketball is awful. The Redskins are the models of futility. The Montreal Expos…dammit, they don’t even exist anymore.
I don’t know what it would be like to actually be excited to root for a team with a legitimate chance at success. Throw in the soul-crushing GRob era and the damage that memories of Iowa, Miami (the one not in Florida) and Akron have engrained in the fiber of my being, and my Syracuse football fandom lives in a constant state of melancholy.
So, while your other commentators and die-hard fans look forward to this season with optimism, I feel only dread. Exciting dread, but dread nonetheless. I can only see the problems and why, once again, my excitement will only lead to disappointing sadness. Let me share with you what is keeping me up with this year’s team.
Running back mediocrity
The running backs are unproven and generally unimpressive. Throughout the past decade of futility, the Orange has always had at least decent talent at the running back spot. Delone Carter and Curtis Brinkley have both had cups of coffee in the NFL. Antwan Bailey was in the Redskins training camp this season. A Syracuse running back has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in every season since 2007.
Funny fact—the leading rusher in 2007 was Curtis Brinkley with 371 yards… for the entire season. How is that futility humanly possible? Oh yeah, I remember now. Greg Robinson isn’t human. Nevermind.
The running corps this season is extremely underwhelming. Jerome Smith has the starting gig to kickoff the season. His production, along with his running skills last season was mediocre. His 3.6 yards per carry isn’t inspiring a ton of confidence for this upcoming season. He’s a running back that does everything OK but nothing well.
The backups don’t make me feel much better. Prince Tyson Gulley has some decent speed, but I have doubts he can produce for an entire season. Adonis Ameen-Moore may turn into a decent thumper, but he really didn’t show it last season. Speaking of last season, why was he even playing? I can’t understand why the redshirt was blown for 12 carries as the season was falling apart. I don’t get it. Finally, the fact that Marrone moved Devante McFarlane back to running back midway through camp is a really bad sign.
Long story short, the running back situation this season is giving me a case of the sads.
The defensive front seven
I know the front seven is supposed to be the strength of the defense, but I am not impressed with this squad. The loss of Chandler Jones is enormous, as he was the closest thing to a pass rusher that Syracuse had. Brandon Sharpe and Deon Goggins have huge shoes to fill. Goggins has show spurts, but can he really be a dominant pass rusher for the entire season? The best bet for success on the D-line would be the emergence of Iowa transfer John Raymon or JUCO transfer and Markus Pierce-Brewster. Raymon, however, hasn’t really played football in more than a year and came into camp overweight, so who knows what to expect from him. Pierce-Brewster was great in junior college. But junior college isn’t the Big East. Actually…it might be better. Disregard that comment. If this unit can’t put pressure on the quarterback, we’re in for a very long season.
I’m also extremely nervous about the linebackers, the supposed strength of the team. If football were just a game over who could hit the hardest, I would love this squad. The Dyshawn Davis hit in the Rutgers game was one of the best defensive plays I’ve seen from a Syracuse linebacker since Keith Bullock was wearing Orange. However, as a unit, there were too many games last season in which they were out of position or ineffective at shutting down the run. The UConn and South Florida games were prime examples. The linebackers have to play much smarter in order for this defense to be successful. Having three less talented Lavar Arringtons over pursing or missing tackles probably won’t bring home a Big East title.
Unreasonable Sales and Broyld expectations
All offseason I have heard about how the offense is going to be different because we have Marcus Sales back. My question is why? Sales has always been talented. Nobody can argue with that. However, for almost his entire Syracuse career he has been a real non-factor. One memorable bowl game and all of a sudden Sales is Marvin Harrison reborn. I hate to bring everyone down, but one game does not a career make. Getting up for a bowl game is one thing. Getting up for Rutgers or Pitt is something completely different. Plus, even in Pinstripe Bowl game, Sales had the benefit of playing against Kansas State’s comically awful defense. There is no evidence he has the discipline to perform at that type of level for the entire season.
Ashton Broyld is also concerning me. It’s not that I don’t think he’ll be helpful this season. He appears to have game-changing talent and the ability to give Syracuse an offensive threat we haven’t had since Quadry Ismail. But he’s a freshman coming for the football hotbed of upstate New York. The fact that he dominated Rochester does not mean he can play with the big boys. Time will tell on what he can turn into, but everyone needs to take a deep breath on what he is realistically capable of being this season.
This all leads me to my other concern. Is he not a quarterback anymore? If he’s going to be our playmaker, then using him in a variety of different roles is fine. Syracuse has done this before with former quarterback prospects. Remember, Kevin Johnson was originally a quarterback before losing the starting job to Donovan McNabb. However, if he is the quarterback of the future, what are we doing throwing up out there at receiver or running back? Is this really going to help him develop? I know we want to see him on the field to help the offense, but is that the best for his growth and the growth of the program? Tim Tebow was stuck behind Chris Leak at his freshman year at Florida. Did they throw him in at Wideout just to get him on the field? No, they used him in packages that would foreshadow how he would run the offense when it was his turn. If Broyld is our Tebow, why would we do something different?
The non-conference schedule
For years, the biggest complaint about Syracuse basketball was its supposed unwillingness to play a tough non-conference schedule. I’m not sure the best way for Dr. Gross to remedy this situation was to give the football program a comically difficult schedule. When you look at the non-conference schedule and you think going 3-2 is a best-case scenario, you are in for a world of hurt. This isn’t the schedule for BCS program with one winning season in a decade. This is the schedule that non-BSC school like Boise State needs to play to impress the BCS computers enough to give them a shot at a national title.
Syracuse doesn’t need to rack up quality wins, though that would be nice. What we really need are wins in general. It doesn’t matter against whom. Remember Rutgers breakout year in 2006 that turned around its program? Rutgers’ non-conference schedule consisted of a 3-9 North Carolina, 2-10 Illinois and the powerhouse football programs of Howard, Ohio and Navy. Does anyone talk about that? Of course not. Nobody cares about what the schedule looks like when you aren’t a title contender.
They just see the record in the newspaper and think, wow, that program has really turned itself around. This is what we should be scheduling. You don’t get points for trying, or keeping games close. Moral victories don’t wow recruits. But a 9-3 record might.
Say it with me. Missouri bad, Southwest Missouri State good.
Then why watch?
So, I know what you are thinking. If you hate everything, why are you watching? Well, this is why I engage in cautious pessimism. Even with all of the horrors that appear to loom on the horizon, there is always that small flicker of hope that keeps me going. Sweet, sweet irrational hope. And for this season, my hope is completely irrational.
When I look at the team this year, there is something that seems a little different than past years. Something that feels foreign, but oddly familiar. Something that makes me think I have seen this movie before.
This season we have a coach who is slowly rebuilding the program from scratch, and who has the faith of a portion of the fan base, with others beginning to unreasonably call for his head because of the unreasonable expectations. There is a senior quarterback who has always been solid and is poised for a breakout year if he can put everything together. This is a team that came off its first bowl appearance in eleventy billion years two seasons ago, only to have a massive letdown the following season. There is a huge matchup against a perennial power that we have no chance of beating.
Is it just me or does this sound like 1987 to anyone else?
Bear with me, but I can easily see Ryan Nassib being the slower, more throwy version of Don McPherson. Why can’t Doug Marrone play the role of a Dick Macpherson or at least a less adorable, more angry Coach Mac? Am I the only person who sees the similarities between troubled Marcus Sales and Tommy Kane? Charlie Loeb can be the much prettier version of perpetual backup Todd Philcox. There are forced resemblances to be made everywhere.
Fan is short for fanatic, and all fanatics are basically insane. So, I’m embracing my insanity and I’m all in again this season. Does my head tell me this team will actually be good? Nope. But nobody thought the 1987 team could contend for a national title either. There is the off chance that a merry band of misfits can pull it together and achieve greatness. I watched a documentary on that once. A team with little talent that rallied around its leader, pulled together and achieved great things. If you’ve never seen this film before, you really should. I believe it won an Oscar. It’s called “The Mighty Ducks.” It’s magical, and don’t you tell me that Doug Marrone isn’t cooler than Emilio Estevez. Those are fighting words.Mark Porter