This year's meeting will be a little tougher. The Carrier Dome is a tough place to play on any given Saturday. The Orange return nine starters on defense from a unit that ranked ninth nationally in sacks per game, and 13th nationally against the run. That kind of nucleus buys them some time in developing an offense, which returns a lot of players that are still developing.
The Orange have one thing in mind this season, and that is getting back to a bowl game. Syracuse has not played in a bowl game since they met up with Georgia Tech in the 2004 Champs Sports Bowl--the same year Pitt won a share of the Big East crown and ended up at the Fiesta Bowl.
The strength of the Syracuse defense is the secondary, where they return all four starters from a year ago. Free safety Mike Holmes finished second on the team in tackles with 77. Holmes will finish his career as one of the school's all-time leading tacklers--good for him that he can make those tackles, but a bad sign when it's the safety making all those tackles. The Orange also return corners Phillip Thomas and Da'Mon Merkerson. The strong safety position is up for grabs between sophomore Shamarko Thomas and senior Max Suter. Suter made nine starts last season, while Thomas made seven starts.
Linebackers Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue finished first and third on the team in tackles, and both return as starters this season. Hogue led the team in tackles for loss (16) and sacks (9.5), while Smith was second on the team in both categories.
While the addition of playmaking linebackers like Smith and Rogue helped the Orange, they couldn't have done it without the help of a decent defensive line. While the unit isn't as deep as it needs to be, they still return three of four starters (defensive ends Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich, defensive tackle Andrew Lewis).
Syracuse needs impact players on offense. The biggest problem, is that in trying to rebuild and recover from what has been a disastrous last few seasons for the program, the Orange enters this season having to replace a starting quarterback, it's top rusher and top receiver from a year ago. They have a few players who are showing some promise, and a few that have gotten their feet wet in the experience department.
Despite losing 1,000-yard back Delone Carter, Antwon Bailey and Averin Collier also started games last year. Carter accounted for over half of Syracuse's total rushing attempts. The question here, will be if one of these backs can handle the kind of workload Carter had when he was at Syracuse, or will they split the workload. Bailey was second on the team with 312 yards and one touchdown, and also caught 27 passes for 200 yards. Collier, the younger brother of former Pitt running back Kevin Collier, also made one start last year.
Ryan Nassib, who played in nine games as a true freshman, is taking over for the graduated Greg Paulus--who made shockwaves when he transferred in to Syracuse for just one season of football. Paulus was serviceable, and although he was a big-name recruit coming in and could help right away, him throwing 13 touchdown passes with 14 interceptions interfered with getting Nassib involved earlier, if he was going to be the guy for the next few years anyway.
The Orange return a host of receivers, but none that has really stepped to the forefront to be a go-to guy. It's possible one of them can step up and become a go-to receiver, but not a given.
Despite only playing and starting in seven games last year, Mike Williams led Syracuse with 49 catches for 746 yards and six touchdowns. He is off to a pretty good start with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales are next on the list. Lemon caught 29 passes while Sales caught 28 passes. They've been in the mix at Syracuse for awhile. Now, the Orange needs at least one of them to step up and be the go-to receiver.
The Orange had a nice boost a couple months ago when Jarrod West, initially a Stanford signee, did not get in at Stanford. He had the grades to get in at pretty much any other school he wanted to, as long as the offer was there. He chose Syracuse, where he has a chance to come in immediately and help at a position of need.
Doug Marrone has brought a toughness back to Syracuse. It's still a work in progress, but from the looks of year one, he's definitely put his stamp on this defense. Now, it's time to get something out of this offense. Though it's just year two, it's hard to waste a defense that is returning nine starters. It's a tough task to replace the production they lost from last year's graduated players, but anything this team can get from its offensive players will get this team back on track, and possibly to its first bowl game in six years.