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A way too early look at the 2009 schedule: Week 1 - Syracuse

This is kind of funny that the year we leave the dome, we start the season in one.  While all of us are eagerly anticipating the new stadium, the Gophers will open the season on the road making us wait yet another week before watching Gopher football outdoors. We will open the season traveling to Syracuse to face the Orangemen.  The last time we faced Syracuse it was a 35-33 win at home back in 1996.   This is actually the first of two BCS caliber teams on the schedule, which my research indicated is the first time since 1992 when we had Colorado and Pitt on the schedule.  

But if you think Jim Brown, Donovan McNabb, Marvin Harrison, Larry Csonka, Art Monk or Dwight Freeny is going to be lining up against our Golden Gophers you are sadly mistaken.  This is the Orange that Greg Robinson built and in 2008 they were one of the worst BCS level teams in the country.

It is dangerous to dwell too much on the 2008 season as it is not necessarily a direct indicator of future successes.  But it was pretty bad, lead to a regime change and things do not look to be changing quickly in Syracuse.  In college football when your offense was one of the worst in the country and you go into the season with a new starting QB along with your starting tailback graduating (1,100 yd rusher) that is not usually a reason to be encouraged.  On the plus side this was one of the worst offenses in the country and they don't have their starting QB and RB returning.

What did Syracuse do well?

I'm not trying to rip 'Cuse here, but they were last in the Big East in all of the following categories...

  • Scoring Offense, Scoring Defense
  • Total Offense, Total Defense
  • Rushing Defense
  • Passing Offense
  • Punt Ret avg (4.5 yds !?)
  • First Downs, Opp First Downs
  • 3rd Down Conversion, Opp 3rd Down Conversion
  • Time of Possession
  • Red Zone Defense

Does this sound familiar to any Gopher fans?  Let's not forget how historically bad we were just two years ago.  From a distance it is easy to say that we weren't that bad in 2007, but Syracuse really was that bad in 2008.  But this team did seem to play better down the stretch.  Finishing 2-3 to end the season isn't setting the world on fire but they did beat Notre Dame on the road and beat Louisville to avoid a winless conference season. 

Statistically there were a couple things they could hang their hats on in 2008.  First of all they did nearly average 150 yards rushing per game.  This is respectable and the fact that they are returning 4/5 of their starting offensive line they should be a solid team on the ground in 2009.  After that the only stat that remotely stands out is their relative success in the turnover margin.  One would expect that a 3-9 season would see turnovers fall heavily in favor of their opponent, but surprisingly they finished the season -1 in turnover margin.  They were actually second in the Big East in turnovers lost.

I don't think any of this should cause concern to the Gophers.  They should have a good offensive line but they'll be learning a new system with a new QB and inexperience at RB by committee.

What did they do poorly?

Everything else.  Outside of not turning the ball over it looks like they were unable to move the ball and utterly incapable of stopping anybody.  There are some alarming stats but allowing opponents to convert 51.2% of their third down attempts is just incredible.  In 2007, when the Gopher defense couldn't stop anybody we only allowed a 44.3% third down conversion rate. 

Once again it is good news / bad news for the Orangmen, most of the defense is returning.  I'm not sure you will see the type of turnaround the Gopher defense saw because much of our 2008 success was due to a couple key JUCO transfers; none of the Simmons/Brock/Lawrence ilk are heading to Syracuse.  They will have to improve with schemes, coaching and 365 days of maturing.

To get some help learning a few things about Syarcuse I queried one of the best NCAA bloggers out there.  Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician is an excellent site and worth a daily read.

1 - Can we get a summation of the Greg Robinson era?  What did he do to the program, why was he intent on destroying the program and is there anything remaining that can be used by the new staff to notch a couple more wins this year?

What did Greg Robinson do to the program? Syracuse football was like a child crying on the ground with a skinned knee when Greg Robinson took over. Once happy and full of life, Syracuse was hurting and in need of some Neosporin. Instead, Greg Robinson picked the child up, dropped it on its head, caused the brain to hemorrhage and put the kid into a vegetative state from which many wondered if it would ever wake.

Here's the thing with Greg. He's a really nice guy. A REALLY NICE GUY. He's the kind of guy you want coaching your kid's Little League or you'd want as a uncle. He's positive and well-meaning and wants everyone to be happy and succeed and have a good time. That's all great, expect that it makes you a HORRIBLE college head coach. We're only now truly understanding how undisciplined a Greg Robinson-led football program was and how unprepared he truly was for the job. Greg always had the best of intentions. But you can't win football games with intentions...unless you're playing a Charlie Weis team.

What good things did Greg Robinson leave behind? He left being some talented players. Not many, but enough to begin the rebuilding process with. Somehow, he was able to recruit a handful of talented high school players to come put on the orange and blue. We're still not sure how and we even more perturbed with how he fared with all that talent but we're grateful for at least that.

Oh and two of his players opened a sweet hookah bar on campus last year. So there's that too.

2 - This is a game Gopher fans look at as a must win or even a near certain win.  I mean, c'mon, Syracuse was terrible last year.  Is this the game that Orange fans are looking at the same way?  A home game against a lower level Big Ten team.  Are both teams looking down their noses at the other?  Your thoughts...

I wouldn't say Syracuse has many "must-win" games this season. Certainly we better beat 1-AA Maine and most SU fans are expecting us to beat Akron (last season not withstanding). After that, I don't think anyone's putting money down on SU as a sure thing.

I think Syracuse fans are, or should be, looking at Minnesota as a prototype for what we can do. You guys went from 1-11 to 7-6 and a bowl game. Syracuse was 3-9 last year...surely we can win three more games this season and do the same thing. It's a testament to just how quickly things can change with the right coaches, players and system in place.

Do we think we can win the game? Here in April I will say...sure. Do I expect to win? Not yet. We're still too much of an unknown quantity. Syracuse fans are just excited about the Doug Marrone Era and I expect to be out in full force for this game because of it.

3 - Let's get a little specific, please give me two or three players on both sides of the ball who are worth noting (or fearing for Gopher fans).  It looks as though your starting QB is not going to be starting QB so please give us some insight as to who will be starting at that key position

I think you're referring to last year's starter Cameron Dantley but actually our QB situation has changed drastically in the last two weeks. Going into camp, the depth chart was incumbent senior Cam Dantley, former starting quarterback and senior Andrew Robinson, heir-apparent David Legree and reshirt freshman Ryan Nassib. Just a few days later, Legree had left the team, Robinson was a tight end, Dantley was on the bench and Ryan Nassib was installed as the new starting quarterback of Syracuse football. Marrone leveled the playing field and went with who played the best in spring ball and apparently Nassib is the present as well as the future at SU.

So far we know Nassib has a cannon on his shoulder but he's struggling to find accuracy. Meanwhile he's working well in Syracuse's new spread offense in terms of scrambling and bootlegs. He's still an unknown at this point but as the summer goes on we'll learn more about Ryan and how he'll handle the starting role.

If there's anyone who can benefit from Nassib's arm and make him look better than he might be, it's wide receiver Mike Williams. If Nassib can get Williams the ball, be scurred. Be very very scurred. Two years ago, Mike Williams broke about a dozen single-season school receiving records and ended the year with a 9-game touchdown streak. He was set to rewrite every record in the book by the time he was a senior. Then, before last season, he was caught up in a cheating scandal and kicked out of school. He eventually worked his way back but has basically been out of football for a year. Word is he's been struggling with catches in the spring but everything should come back to him in time for the game.

Otherwise the running back game is shaping up to be another committee approach. Last year Curtis Brinkley was the Orange's go-to back but he graduated. That leaves senior Delone Carter who returned strong from a knee injury last year, sophomore Antwon Bailey whom you may remember from his fantastic performance in the Notre Dame win and sophomore Averin Collier who came into SU as the #1 running back in New York state last season. All three expect to make an impact for the Orange although the smart money is on Carter and Bailey to fight it out for the starting role.

Probably the only name worth mentioning on defense is the one guy who's not actually playing right now. DE Arthur Jones had a monster All-Big-East season last year and returned for his senior year as an early candidate for Big East Defensive Player of the Year (if that's actually an award). Then he tore his pec muscle during off-season weight lifting and he's been on the sidelines all spring. We're expecting to see him back in uniform by mid-summer so you can expect to see him lining up against Minnesota.

4 - There has been talk for a few years that the Big Ten is going to / should / might / could add a 12th team. Syracuse has three B10 teams on their schedule this year, they'd fit the B10 academic criteria and would be a hell of a basketball addition. Is the administration giving us subtle hints here by scheduling three B10 teams this season? Would you be OK with that or would you go kicking and screaming into the most complete conference in the country?

Well first of all, everyone forgets now but Syracuse is actually supposed to be in the ACC right now. They, not Virginia Tech, were originally part of the teams expected to be invited to the conference and all signs point to the fact that SU would have jumped. IMO, I'm glad we didn't jump, especially for the sake of basketball. The Big Ten rumors have been out there for a while as well and to be honest, I think if we were invited we would go. Our athletic director Daryl Gross wants to rewrite the history of Syracuse athletics into something bigger and better than what it is and a bold move like switching to a conference that has a better football cache and it's own network would be right up his alley. And as much as SU is one of the faces of Big East basketball, at the end of the day we would probably cut that tie to make football better, and more profitable.

I definitely found it odd that we had scheduled three Big Ten teams this season. At first glance, all sorts of red flags went up. I don't think it's quite the conspiracy theory that it looks though. The Northwestern deal has been in place for years and we've been dying to play Penn State again, so I think the fact that they and Minnesota share the same conference is coincidental. That said, it's the first time since 1980 that one BCS conference team has scheduled three teams from another BCS conference (Notre Dame withstanding).

At the end of the day I'd rather stay in the Big East but I get why we'd move. I'd be bummed, more-so for the lost basketball rivalries than anything. But unfortunately I think we are heading the way of the mega-conferences in college sports (a topic for another time) and eventually it's probably inevitable.

5 - Finally can I get some predictions that nobody will remember in 4 months?  Who will emerge victorious in this crucial game and overall record for Syracuse this year?

Before I give my prediction, let me throw this wild thought out bad as they looked most of the time last season, Syracuse SHOULD have gone 6-6 last season. It took West Virginia the final drive of the game to beat us, we were leading Pittsburgh heading into the fourth quarter and we lost to Akron at home. All of these things came down to coaching and Greg Robinson made some of his worst decisions (or non-decisions) in these games that led each loss. My gut feeling tells me that SU had enough talent to break even last year but the coaching was so bad that it actually cost them three games. Inversely, if Doug Marrone is as good a coach as I think he is, he's the kind of coach that could have won those games, or at least two of them.

That said, I'm going to pencil the Orange in for a 6-6 record in 2009. I don't think they beat Minnesota but I think they make it a very good game. The schedule does the Orange no favors but I think they have one very important thing working in their favor...the Big East is going to be down again this year. Cincinnati lost their entire defense, Rutgers is down, UConn is down, Pitt regressed, West Virginia lost Pat White and Louisville is our bitch. Even if they drop the first three games against Minn, N'western and Penn State, the Orange will have a lot of opportunities against Maine, Akron and the middling Big East.


What's going to Happen?

Here is my rock solid prediction (I reserve the right to change my mind at any point following the publishing of this article).  This really needs to be a win for the Gophers.  We improved from year one to year two of the Brewster era.  But there has to be another step of improvement in year three.  And this is the kind of game that an improved Gopher team absolutely has to win.  I think if we can move the ball early we will avoid a situation where the Syracuse defense gains some confidence and we struggle to move the ball. 

But I reiterate, we have to be an improved football team and this will be a great game to show whether or not the 2009 Gophers will be any different than the 2008 version. 

Gophers win 34-20