The Syracuse Orange football season begins in 127 days. That seems like a long time, and it is. But given the excitement around the fan base for the start of the Dino Babers era, why not get going a little early on previews? We start with our opponents, which are just as difficult as ever. Each week, we'll take a look at a team on Syracuse's 2016 schedule. Today, we continue with the::
School: University of South Florida
#BRAND Slogan: "A high-impact, global research university dedicated to student success."
Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: "No, not the University of San Francisco." "Remember Matt Grothe?"
Recommended Blog: The Daily Stampede (welcome back, Voodoo Five gang!)
Coach: Willie Taggart, 4th year. Taggart was probably supposed to get fired last year. The team was not getting much better and the fan base was getting tired of the Bulls sitting in mediocrity for years on end. Then, oddly, Taggart's young USF squad went 8-5 and had a shot at playing for a conference title against Houston. Now the question becomes how he'll do with some real expectations in Tampa.
2015 Record: (8-5) (6-2)
Recapping Last Season:
Starting out 1-3 on the year, it looked like another lost season for Taggart's Bulls. Then, Syracuse went down to Raymond James Stadium, got lit up, and the rest is history. The Bulls ended the season on a 7-3 run, scoring upsets over Temple and Cincinnati and coming within one more Owls loss of playing in the AAC Championship Game. Whatever ailed the team in the first month of the year -- likely a struggle for offensive direction and a more difficult slate of opponents -- it all vanished from the Orange win on out.
For USF, the offense was an impressive group for the final two-thirds of the schedule. The team averaged nearly 38 points per game over the final nine contests, and found itself on the better end of several lopsided games. Quarterback Quinton Flowers went from question mark to surefire option under center. His nearly 3,300 total yards and 34 touchdowns not only came out of nowhere, but also quickly entered into the same conversation as the expert dual-threat Bulls passers that preceded him. Of course, he was assisted by a fantastic run game too. Marlon Mack, particularly, was a force of nature as he rushed for 1,381 yards on just 210 carries.
Defensively, the Bulls also took several steps forward. Their 22.9 points per game against ranked 35th in the country, while they ranked 52nd in total defense -- much of that aided by the expert run D which allowed just 141 yards per game on the ground. USF not only got after the passer (34 sacks on the season), they also forced a lot of turnovers. Pulling in 25 takeaways over 13 games ranked them among the top 25 teams in the country in that category. It helped, of course, that the offense was also doing its part.
2016 Season Outlook:
Amazingly, the Bulls could be the favorite to win the AAC East this season, and could also potentially be favored in every game but the one against Florida State. Fourteen starters are back, including all of the offense's main contributors. As mentioned, USF's offense looked pretty solid last year, so the prospect of bringing back virtually all of that production could mean huge things for this program. Youth can be a problem for some squads. But if it succeeds the way it did last year for South Florida, that's when a team can really start building something special.
Flowers, obviously, is the centerpiece of the Bulls' attack -- a dangerous dual-threat who's already improved as a passer and could do so even more. Mack is the best running back in the conference, and potentially a rising star in the country too. USF's receiving corps., balanced last year, could also find themselves even better than last fall... But it all depends on the line. Losing three of five starters is problematic for any team, but especially this one given how well-protected they kept Flowers in 2015. Inexperience in front of the QB likely means more than the 20 sacks (last year's total) allowed.
Defensively, there's a lot back (seven starters here too), but all eyes could shift to who isn't. Safety/"Husky" Jamie Byrd -- top-three on the team in picks, sacks and tackles -- is gone, as are three-sevenths of the front-seven. That push they got from the line will need to be replaced, as a ton of sacks head out the door to graduation. The team does return all but one (Byrd) from a young secondary, however. That could at least assist in the season's early games as the green line figures things out.
Syracuse Game Date: September 17, the season's first Saturday kickoff.
Location: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.
Odds of Orange Victory: 35 percent
Very Early Outlook:
I desperately wanted to go higher on this one, but considering what a younger USF team did to a more experienced defense in 2015, I shudder to think what could happen this September. The Bulls are very good on the offensive side, and Flowers and Mack could be among the best quarterback/running back duos the Orange face all season. Playing on artificial turf instead of grass may only help their case against SU's defense. The only saving grace for Syracuse could be a potential shootout situation. Should the inexperienced Bulls defensive line still be getting its bearings in week three, it could give Eric Dungey and the passing game a whole lot more time to operate. It's tough to bank on an upset here, but the more points these teams score, the more likely the Orange could come away with a surprising victory (which they'll need if they ave any shot of getting back to six wins).