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NCAA Football

Rant Sports 100 in 100 College Football Previews: No. 64 Syracuse Orange

With the college football right around the corner, today we preview the No. 64 team on our Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football preview series, the Syracuse Orange.

After a 5-7 finish in 2011, Doug Marrone’s Orange have plenty of work to do in 2012, but may have just the pieces to do it and work back toward a bowl appearance at the end of the season.

Impact Players

Offense

The success of the Syracuse offense will lie firmly on the shoulders of senior quarterback Ryan Nassib, especially given the departures of the 2011 team’s major offensive contributors Antwon Bailey and Nick Provo.

Nassib threw for 2,685 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2011, and will need to amp those numbers up substantially this fall. Luckily, of the five starters returning on the offensive side of the ball, three are offensive linemen. All Big East left tackle Justin Pugh leads the way for a unit that will be expected to have improved from 2011 in all facets, both in run and pass blocking.

Nassib also has the luxury of two quality wideouts in senior Alec Lemon, who set a school-record in 2011 with 68 catches for 834 yards and Marcus Sales who is coming off a suspension and will be expected to put up numbers similar to what he did in 2010 when he was the Orange’s leading receiver in several categories.

True freshman athlete Ashton Broyld could also be a major factor in the offense, especially if Lemon’s rehabilitation process from off-season shoulder surgery takes longer than expected.

Jerome Smith is expected to be the starter at running back, but only by a process of elimination, given he is the only returning back from the 2011 squad with any substantial experience.

Defense

In simple terms, there’s nowhere to go but up for the Orange’s defensive unit. From what was the statistically worst unit in the Big East in 2011, eight starters return for 2012.

Middle linebacker Marquis Spruill is expected to be the leader of the Orange defense this fall given he can return from what was deemed a lower body injury suffered during spring practices. Spruill had 62 tackles (5.5 TFL) in 2011 and is the type of vocal leader that will be necessary for Syracuse to take things to the next level.

Depending on Spruill’s status going forward, senior linebacker Dan Vaughn will be expected to lead the charge and take up the slack. Vaughn finished second on the team in tackles in 2011 with 72 (5.5 TFL) and could form a solid unit along with Spruill– perhaps the team’s strongest overall- assuming Spruill is 100% entering fall practice.

Senior strong safety Shamarko Thomas and junior cornerback Keon Lynn will lead a secondary unit that should be improved from 2011 and must play with more consistency and confidence in 2012 to avoid a repeat of last season where they gave up an average of 258 yards per game through the air.

Strong performances from returning linemen Jay Bromley and Deon Groggins could be the key to make sure the unit not only sets the tone, but improves upon a league worst 28 sacks in 2011.

Schedule

Syracuse’s non-conference schedule is just flat out difficult. Consecutive home games against the deceptive Northwestern Wildcats and potential National Championship contender USC Trojans will be instant tests for Doug Marrone‘s squad.

Week 3 should be the first easy win of the season for the Orange as they welcome FCS Stony Brook to town, after which they wrap up the non-conference season against the RS No. 79 Minnesota Gophers on the road on September 22nd.

If the Orange can somehow come up with a split– perhaps even with an upset of Northwestern or (gulp) USC– a bowl appearance is possible.

A 1-3 start, however, in the early going may set things back one more year in Syracuse.

Kris Hughes is the College Football Network Manager for Rant Sports and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.

You can follow him on Twitter or check out his Facebook page.

Kris is also the host of Rant Sports Radio on the Blog Talk Radio Network Wednesday evenings at 8 Central Time.