En route to a 3-9 season in 2014, Syracuse's most glaring weakness might have been its special teams play. The Orange ranked 119th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in average kick return yardage and 120th in punt return defense. SU also ranked just 54th in average punt return yardage and 44th in kick return defense -- better, but not great.
Time and again, this resulted in poor field position for Syracuse's offense and great field position for opposing offenses, putting SU's defense in its own holes.
But through four games in 2015, that has begun to change. Per Football Study Hall, the Orange's offense has, on average, started with the ball at its own 32-yard line -- good for 38th-best in the country. Meanwhile, opposing offenses have, on average, started with the ball at their own 23.6-yard line, giving SU the best average starting defensive field position in college football.
A number of things have contributed to this, including SU's improved play on offense and its positive turnover margin. But let's start with two players in particular that deserve a lot of credit: punter Riley Dixon and wide receiver Brisly Estime, who also serves as the Orange's punt and kick returner.
In four games, Dixon has punted 19 times. He's pinned opposing offenses inside the 20-yard line on 11 of those punts. For a defense that ranks 82nd in college football in efficiency, that's extremely valuable. The Orange's defense doesn't force many three-and-outs. Its prevent-style defense allows teams to move the chains, and when Dixon pins an offense inside the 10-yard line, for instance, it effectively gives Syracuse's defense another set of downs to work with.
On the other side of the ball, Estime has helped put SU's offense in manageable spots. His punt return average of 21.1 yards is sixth-best in the country, while his kick return average of 23.9 yards ranks 46th in the country -- also well above the national average. It has certainly contributed to Syracuse scoring 32.8 points per game -- the 47th-best mark in the country.
Of course, it would be remiss not to mention Syracuse's turnover margin. The Orange have forced nine turnovers and committed only three, something that has a lot of positive implications in field position for both the defense and offense.
Expect all of this to continue against South Florida on Saturday, as SU should be able to win the field position battle. The Bulls average solid starting offensive field position thanks to a good defense and above average return men, but they rank 83rd in average defensive starting field position. Reasons for this: they have an even turnover margin; their punter, Mattias Ciabatti, struggles to pin teams inside the 20; and their kicker, Emilio Nadelman, doesn't kick many touchbacks.
Here are a couple other things to know regarding advanced statistics before Saturday's game:
1. Can SU stop the run?
The Orange's rush defense this season has been above average; Syracuse ranks 44th in rush defense success rate. (A successful run means getting half the necessary yardage needed for a first down on first down, 70 percent of the necessary yardage on second down and 100 percent on third and fourth down.)
But the defense will face a tough test on Saturday in USF running back Marlon Mack, who is averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
Syracuse's best chance to limit Mack could be by stopping him at the line of scrimmage, which the Orange have been good at doing this season. SU's defensive stuff rate -- the percentage of runs that see the ball carrier stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage -- is at 32.5 percent, fourth-best in the FBS. And while the Bulls have the 28th-best rushing attack in college football, they are susceptible to being stuffed; USF running backs are stuffed 18.2 percent of the time, good for 56th-best in the country.
2. Moving the ball could be up to Dungey
If Syracuse wants to move the ball down the field, it will likely have to rely on Eric Dungey, who is probable to start at quarterback after missing the LSU game with an upper-body injury. Running the ball against USF is tough; teams have just a 31.7 percent rushing success rate against the Bulls. However, the Bulls' pass defense ranks just 85th in S&P and teams have a 40.7 percent passing success rate against them; clearly, that's where USF is most vulnerable.