USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
The events of 2014 have taught us one valuable lesson: Orange-clad athletic administrators who speak of a plus-one mentality – the idea that the baseline for a program's success should be one more win than the previous effort – need to be taken seriously.
Take Gerard Dielessen, for example, the secretary general of Netherlands' Olympic committee. Back in February, Dielessen sat at a long, wooden table in Sochi, eating some sort of Dutch pastry-cookie hybrid – they were delicious – and detailed how Dutch athletes entered the 2014 Games eyeballing nine medals, one more than the country's haul at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
You might remember what happened next: Dutch speedskaters alone accounted for 23 medals, a treasure trove of gold, silver and bronze unmatched in Olympic history. Dielessen and his Dutch athletes set a plus-one standard; they ended at plus-16. So there's something to be said of the power of positive thinking.
Two months later, Scott Shafer – the orange-clad Orange coach – espoused a similar mindset after his seven-win Syracuse debut.
"We won seven, so I want to win eight or more this year," Shafer said.
Consider the source: Shafer can't necessarily suggest his team will be worse, of course. Also consider the clear benefits of a positive, keep-moving-forward mentality: Syracuse hasn't notched three consecutive winning seasons since 1999-2001.
Finally, consider the long run: Shafer's bunch won't go plus-eight in 2014 – you know, to 15-0 – but plus-one means eight wins in 2014; another plus-one spells nine wins in 2015; another plus-one means double-digits wins in 2016, and now we're talking.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
But I really like the Shafer hire and the continuity that comes with it; I also like his staff, though they still have to prove themselves as recruiters. The Orange should continue to build a more consistent program, building upon Marrone's foundation, and will, within a season or two, be experienced enough to handle the ACC's higher level of competition. Based on the team's issues in 2013, however, I don't think the Orange go higher than five wins.
In a nutshell: Syracuse reached the postseason despite the occasional hiccup, with both sides of the ball ebbing and flowing between productivity and incompetence, salvaging another winning season thanks in large part to the continuity granted by the university's decision to promote Shafer as Doug Marrone's successor. This was key: Syracuse never won more than two games in a row, for example, and perhaps a group less familiar with the roster's strengths and weaknesses would have struggled righting the ship after the season's distressingly ugly defeats – like a 56-0 road loss to Georgia Tech, or a 59-3 destruction at the hands of undefeated Florida State. But reaching the postseason, let alone defeating Minnesota in the Texas Bowl, marked a satisfying debut for Shafer and his staff.
High point: Beating Boston College to secure a bowl bid and topping Minnesota to secure a winning season. The Orange would defeat four bowl teams: B.C., Minnesota, Tulane and Maryland.
Low point: The ugly losses mentioned above, not to mention single-digit losses to Penn State and Pittsburgh.
Tidbit: Shafer was the first Syracuse coach since Paul Pasqualoni and only the third in the program's modern era to finish with a winning record in his debut season. Pasqualoni went 10-2 in 1991, thanks in large part to the foundation left in place by his predecessor. Way back in 1937, Ossie Solem kicked off his eight-year turn with a 5-2-1 finish.
Tidbit (100 yards edition): Only one Football Bowl Subdivision team did not allow a 100-yard rusher in 2013. It's Syracuse, as you might imagine. The closest was Georgia Tech's Justin Thomas, who rushed for 95 yards in the Yellow Jackets' 56-0 win.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Syracuse grads currently in sports broadcasting
1. Mike Tirico
2. Ian Eagle
3. Marv Albert
4. Greg Papa
5. Gary Apple
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: It's not a major shift, but keep an eye on one offensive storyline: Syracuse and coordinator George McDonald want this unit to move quicker, quicker and quicker, developing a fast-paced tempo and style in and out of ACC play – a pace McDonald has called "full-bore fast." This mentality began to take hold early last season, eventually placing the Orange among the league's top four in plays per game, but look for even more of an up-tempo feel in 2014; McDonald has streamlined the offense in an effort to make things less complex, in turn allowing his offense to spend more time acting and less time reacting. As elsewhere – say, at Auburn – the key is not just quarterback play but overall offensive rhythm. Not that quarterback play won't define the offense's overall success.
The Orange need more from junior Terrel Hunt (1,632 yards and 10 touchdowns), a second-year starter with solid dual-threat athleticism – he added 500 yards and seven scores on the ground – but still-developing poise and presence as a passer. As such, McDonald will continue to utilize heavy doses of short, can't-fail screens and flares, attempts that keep Hunt away from potential missteps while keeping the Orange's passing game stuck in neutral. How important is this offseason? It's vital for Hunt, who needs to show an ability to push the ball downfield – a development that would keep defenses honest, for one, but also create more running room for Syracuse's horizontal passing game. Of equal concern is the team's lack of a proven rotation at wide receiver.
Junior Ivan Foy steps back into the fold after handling some academic issues, giving the Orange a returning starter at right tackle and creating a solid exterior presence to this offensive front. Foy is a promising talent; senior left tackle Sean Hickey, on the other hand, is a true all-conference lock – and a surprise returnee in 2014, to be honest. After dealing with injuries and attrition – and Foy's absence – the Orange's line should round into predictable form come August: Hickey at left tackle, Foy on the strong side, junior Rob Trudo in the middle, junior Nick Robinson at right guard and sophomore Omari Palmer at left guard. The anchor is Hickey, of course, who effectively creates a fence around Hunt's blind side, but the key might be the combination of Trudo and Palmer – with Trudo stepping for a multiple-year starter at center and Palmer the only real newcomer among the starting quintet. One positive to consider: Springtime injuries forced Syracuse to plug would-be reserves into roles with the first-team offense, a development that could pay dividends with the Orange's depth come the regular season.
The Orange will milk all it can from a deep stable of backs. Begin with Prince Tyson-Gulley (462 yards), the projected starter after spending last season in a change-of-pace role. But there will be touches for sophomores George Morris II (334 yards) and Devante McFarlane (292 yards), two impressive youngsters, and perhaps an increased role for 260-pound senior Adonis Ameen-Moore in short-yardage downs. The issues: one, whether Tyson-Gulley has the size to handle an every-down role; two, whether one of the two sophomores can do more than produce in a small sample size; three, whether the interior of the line will deliver; and four, whether Hunt and the passing game can help open lanes on the ground.
Defense: There are holes along the middle of Syracuse's defense, beginning at tackle, continuing at inside linebacker and extending to the back end. Of these losses, Jay Bromley's departure looms largest: Syracuse must locate a viable team along the interior of the defensive line, perhaps cobbling together a cohesive unit by shuffling larger ends inside in certain packages. One option would be to shift senior Micah Robinson (22 tackles); at 270 pounds, his frame could be of use on passing downs. As is, look for the base set to feature a combination of senior Eric Crume (28 tackles, 5.0 for loss), junior Ryan Sloan, sophomore Marcus Coleman and 330-pound JUCO transfer Wayne Williams. While Sloan, Coleman and Williams share snaps on the nose, I can easily see Robinson adding depth behind Crume at tackle.
Looking for a breakout star up front? Get to know sophomore Ron Thompson, a former four-star tight end who made the move to defensive end prior to last season – adding some production in reserve, if only sparingly, but showcasing the wide skill set needed to excel as an every-down end. At some point, Thompson is going to push senior Robert Welsh (32 tackles, 4.0 sacks) for starter's snaps; as such, I wonder if Shafer can create a smaller, more athletic scheme with Welsh and Thompson on the edges. It seems a touch unsettled, yeah, but let's consider the group's overall flexibility: Syracuse lacks all-conference weapons but has the ability to line up any number of different looks with its front four. That's one positive.
As with the line, Syracuse must rebuild in the middle of the second level. There's no doubt as to the starters on the outside: Cam Lynch (69 tackles, 12.0 for loss) and Dyshawn Davis (49 tackles, 7.0 for loss) return, with Lynch an all-conference contender – the new leader at the position – and Davis an off-and-on, frustratingly gifted producer. With this pair entrenched, the Orange can turn to the task of filling Marquis Spruill's shoes in the middle. I'd bet on the job falling to sophomore Marqez Hodge, the lone bright spot in last year's otherwise embarrassing loss to Georgia Tech. What Hodge gives Syracuse is three speedy, aggressive, play-in-space linebackers. I think that's what Shafer is looking for. Keep an eye out for incoming freshman Zaire Franklin, the most impressive member of February's class.
The secondary is a concern. How can it be viewed as anything but? When it comes to cornerback, Syracuse is reliable only in its unreliability; seniors Brandon Reddish and Julian Whigham and junior Wayne Morgan don't necessarily inspire confidence, though Morgan has flashed a nose for the football – something in high demand on the outside. One positive: Keon Lyn's injury-ravaged senior campaign did push this threesome up a level on the two-deep, so experience isn't an issue. The Orange will promote senior Ritchy Desir (47 tackles) to the top spot at safety, perhaps with some help from former JUCO transfer Darius Kelly. Then there's the one sure thing, junior free safety Durrell Eskridge (78 tackles, 4 interceptions). After closing strong last season, Eskridge qualifies as one of the top returning safeties in the ACC. I still wouldn't trust this secondary.
Special teams: If recovered from last year's hip injury, senior Ross Krautman will reclaim his starting job at kicker. If not, look for Syracuse to use junior Ryan Norton, Krautman's replacement a season ago. There's no debate at punter, where junior Riley Dixon does his thing, but the Orange could stand to bolster this sputtering return game with an offseason competition. Syracuse does cover well, however.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: Flares, screens and baby-step completions aren't good enough: Syracuse needs to stretch the field in the passing game. So the pressure is on a slew of returning receivers to step forward and help Hunt add a sense of danger to a productive running game – giving this attack much-needed balance, basically, an offensive prerequisite against Notre Dame, Clemson, Florida State and others. A few targets are experienced, at least: Jarrod West (26 receptions for 397 yards) is still around, if prone to disappearing acts, and fellow senior Jeremiah Kobena can add depth, if little more.
But the Orange's potential for improvement hinges entirely on a younger cast of promising options, a group paced by junior Ashton Broyld (52 for 452), a potential star; sophomore Brisly Estime (28 for 257), whose paltry per-catch average belies an ability to get behind defenders; and sophomore Alvin Cornelius, who closed the regular season with a flourish.
Here's my dream-season scenario: Broyld develops into a 65-catch, double-team drawing weapon, while Estime is given the chance to operate over the deep middle. Having these two lead would shift West, Kobena and former Arkansas transfer Quinta Funderburk into possession or secondary roles; I wouldn't ask any of the seniors to do more. More help comes in the 2014 signing class, from early enrollee Corey Cooper through four-star signee K.J. Williams.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Pittsburgh: Let's hand out losses to Florida State and Clemson, assume losses to Notre Dame, Duke and Louisville, and place the toss-up tag on matchups with Maryland, Pittsburgh and Boston College. By all accounts, Syracuse is set to assume one of the toughest schedules in college football. With little time to breathe – the Irish, Cardinals, Seminoles and Tigers come in a five-game span – it's fairly possible that Syracuse hits the home stretch needing at least one win in two tries to secure bowl eligibility. The season's final two games come on the road: Pittsburgh on Nov. 22, B.C. on Nov. 29.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: I think eight wins might be overly optimistic. Six wins? I'd bet on it, and I'd plug a seven-win finish if I knew Hunt, these receivers and this passing game could deliver against top-tier competition. But eight seems a stretch: Syracuse doesn't seem built to eke out eight wins against a high-quality schedule. There's Florida State and Clemson, those clear – and very likely ugly – losses; there's Louisville, and this secondary might not have a prayer against the Cardinals' passing game; there's Duke, and Duke is no longer Duke; there's Notre Dame on the road, and the Irish's defense is built to squat on the Orange's chest; there's Maryland, which seems significantly improved; and there's Pittsburgh and Boston College, both on the road, to end the regular season.
I typically save the schedule for last, because it's often not as important a standard as personnel and scheme, but not in this case: Syracuse must be gauged against the difficulty of this schedule, and it's a beast. Again, however, I do think the Orange knock out another six wins during the regular season, earning a third bowl bid in as many years. My optimism – though six wins may seem pessimistic to this fan base – stems from the returning core of contributors: Hunt, Tyson-Gulley, Hickey, Broyld, Trudo, Crume, Thompson, Davis, Lynch and Eskridge. In a similar vein, Syracuse's roster and personnel are more familiar with both the staff's philosophies – particularly McDonald on offense – and the general feel of the ACC, and the latter is of crucial importance.
But it's hard to ignore some of the issues – with four standing out above the rest. One is the passing game: Syracuse lacks the ability and the personnel to stretch things downfield, so let's get ready for more of the horizontal attack. A second is the defensive line, which might have flexibility and a promising talent in Thompson but lacks the horses and proven production to handle a good slice of this year's opposition. A third is the secondary, which could be an Achilles heel all season. And then the fourth: Syracuse does not quite possess the depth needed to weather the storm against the cream of the crop.
Dream season: Syracuse beats Louisville, Boston College and N.C. State to secure sole possession of the third spot in the Atlantic Division.
Nightmare season: The Orange drop six games against ACC competition and split the non-conference slate, ending at four wins for the first time since 2009.
Who's No. 74? This team will add four quarterback to its roster before fall camp, including one as a transfer from a team within its conference.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014