There are several facets to this team that seem positive as simple statements about a football team.
The quarterback is entering his third season as the starter with two established threats on the perimeter, one of whom could end up as the school’s all-time leader in multiple receiving statistics. There are a half dozen linemen with at least eight starts in front of him and a diverse set of experienced running backs behind him. Possibly the best kicker in school history is on standby to finish off drives when the offense stalls.
The defensive front is deep and experienced. While the linebacking corps is lacking for depth, the top four are all young players who were thrown in the fire last season and responded well, including a potential all-conference player who has a knack for making big plays. The defensive backfield lost three starters to the NFL, but returns an excellent cornerback and a handful of young players who were forced into action last season with generally positive results.
On paper, that all seems great, but many of those groups also have lots of questions. Is that starting quarterback going to pay off the promise shown when he was recruited and played sparingly as a freshman? If he fails, is the incoming transfer who moved off quarterback last season at his previous school capable of playing better?
Will a meaningful third target in the pass game become more than a figment of the imagination? Can this much-maligned offensive line get it together and stay healthy? Or at least stay healthy? Or, based on preseason camp, get healthy?
Will the defense utilize their experience from last season and a normal offseason and camp to perform better in their second season of playing the 3-3-5? Are last season’s terrific numbers in forcing turnovers a perennial feature of this defense or will they regress to the mean after last year’s exceptional performance?
Will McKinley Williams return to health and can he and his mates on that experienced front line get penetration consistently and create pressure after logging just nine sacks as a group last season? Will Mikel Jones be able to perform at an even better level than last season while lifting the play of the other linebackers? Will someone grab the second starting cornerback spot and play well across from Garrett Williams?
The schedule is manageable, which is good, because this is not an overly talented team. Syracuse has not ranked higher than tenth in the ACC in recruiting in the last five years and this roster is dominated by players at the lower grade levels. As a result, conference foes are generally more talented and more experienced than the Orange.
There will be some highlights along the way and a handful of individual achievements that are noted once the back half of the season is upon us. With good health, Andre Szmyt will write his name atop a couple all-time placekicking lists and it is not unreasonable to suggest Taj Harris could do the same in a few receiving categories. Perhaps Tommy DeVito stays upright long enough to sling the ball for 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns, becoming the second player to accomplish either feat at SU. Maybe Sean Tucker becomes the fourth sophomore running back to pick up 900 yards in a season in school history.
Unfortunately, those highlights are likely to be footnotes of another long season, especially once late October arrives and most of the winnable games are already in the rear-view mirror. With a winning record not a likely outcome this season, a lot of how this season is viewed will depend on the specifics of how the Orange got there – were they competitive in the games aside from Clemson, was the offense more productive, did the defense get better, and so on.
A reasonable ceiling for this team is 4-8. The most likely road there is winning the opening three games of the non-conference slate and picking up one conference win, with Wake Forest the best target. Even getting to 6-6 and making a bowl game likely involves just about everything going the way of the Orange – health, both individual and team-wide improvement, and even plain old luck. In other words, it is going to feel like most of the other recent Syracuse football seasons.