The offseason's halfway over for the Syracuse Orange (and every college football team). 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 begin with our opponents, which are... yup, still incredibly difficult. Each week, we'll take a look at a team on Syracuse's 2016 schedule. Today, we continue with the::
School: University of Connecticut
#BRAND Slogan: "Real World, Real Learning, Real Impact."
Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: "More Storrs Than Your Nearest Mall." "Desperately Trying to Join Another Conference Since 2011."
ACC Big Ten Big 12 AAC
Coach: Bob Diaco, 3rd year. Despite bottoming out (2-10) pretty hard in year one, Diaco's Huskies quickly rebounded in his second season over in Storrs. The team created an identity around defense, ball control and... pretty much the exact opposite of every other AAC squad, as Bill Connelly points out. UConn made a bowl with six wins, and even if you choose to doubt the teams those wins came against, they did happen. And that's all that matters. Now, what does he do for an encore?
2015 Record: (6-7) (4-4)
Recapping Last Season:
UConn started the season ugly, grinding out unattractive victories over lesser opponents like Villanova and Army. The next three losses (vs. Missouri, Navy and BYU) were similarly ugly, but they offered proof that the Huskies had a defense that would challenge teams. No need to put a ton of stock into wins over teams like ECU, Tulane and (especially) UCF, but you CAN focus in on what they did to Houston. Over at PAWS ARF, the high-flying Cougars were grounded in their only loss -- proof that UConn's defense wasn't just stout. It could force opponents to change they way they play.
As mentioned repeatedly, the team's strength in 2015 was its defense. The Huskies were one of 15 teams in the country to hold opponents to less than 20 points per game. They finished 33rd in total defense, and a very impressive 20th in passing defense. Their run D was a bit less stout (60th in the country), but obviously still finished in the top half of the country.
Offensively is where UConn ran into some troubles, however, and it's why the improvement didn't result in even more victories. The Huskies scored over 20 points in just three games (all wins), and were actually 5-1 when hitting at least 20. But that's the problem. They failed to do so in seven more games, where they went 1-6. In three of those they didn't even crack double digits (tough they still won one of them). Connecticut's offense racked up just 310 yards per game -- 124th in the country (yes, even below Syracuse's paltry total). That said, the team's time of possession was top-50, which showed they spent a ton of time just grinding the clock down.
2016 Season Outlook:
Sporting a mildly tougher schedule, things could go mildly worse for the Huskies. They're on the road against tough opponents USF, Houston and Navy. They play our very own Syracuse Orange at home. But East Carolina is never an easy place to play either. An additional trip to Boston College and a visit from Virginia ratchets the slate up just enough in terms of difficulty that it could mean the difference between five and six wins for Diaco's still-improving group.
If not on the schedule, the extra loss or two could also come from what UConn lost in terms of talent. Two starters, Julian Campenni and Kenton Adeyemi, disappear from the defensive line. Another two standouts leave the linebacker corps. -- most importantly, Graham Stewart. Between those three alone, the Huskies say goodbye to over half of its 2015 sacks. The secondary losses its leading tackler in Andrew Adams, but Jamar Summers and his eight (!!!) interceptions are back at corner. The defensive backs were a strong group last year, but they may get even stronger in 2016 despite being leaned on a bit more.
The offense brings back all but one starter (right guard Tyler Samra), making it a candidate for improvement. Despite paltry production all around, you can see glimmers of better skillsets lurking at a few positions. Running back Arkeel Newsome is a speedy option who will get plenty of touches both on the ground and through the air, while senior wideout Noel Thomas will be the key to the downfield passing game. At QB, Connecticut possesses a slightly familiar face for Syracuse in Bryant Shirreffs. The redshirt junior suited up for NC State back in 2013. He completed one pass against Syracuse while running for 64 yards. Expect him to be running once again against the Orange.
Syracuse Game Date: September 24
Location: The Rentsch'/PAWS ARF, East Hartford, Conn.
Odds of Orange Victory: 60 percent
Very Early Outlook:
A few games into Dino Babers's offensive attack, the Orange should be firing on all cylinders by this point. Connecticut's young defense could potentially help them stick around, or perhaps even win, solely based on their extensive experience against similar spread offenses, though. If the group can grind Syracuse down like they did to many opponents in 2015, it's a close game that may come down to which teams' weaker unit (Syracuse's defense, UConn's offense) can execute late. If not, it's tough to see the Huskies hanging around in a shootout. The lesson, as you've probably learned by this point: Syracuse needs to be in as many shootouts as possible to maximize victory potential.