One more regular season game to go. Forget conference titles and BCS bowl implications, this one's simply for bragging rights between two former Big East conference rivals. To help us preview this weekend's game between the 6-5 Eagles and 7-4 Orange, we welcome back Sean Keeley from Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, who was nice enough to answer some questions on Syracuse.
In exchange, we answered some questions on the Eagles over on their site. Be sure to check them out.
BC Interruption: When we got reacquainted with one another before the start of the season, your expectation for this year's Syracuse team was to be either 6-5 or 5-6 heading into the BC game, caveating that this might "sound like insanity." Well Syracuse has gone out and far surpassed your preseason expectations in year 2 under Doug Marrone. What's the reason 'Cuse football is seemingly ahead of schedule?
Troy Nunes: Well I think it's fair to say that the schedule worked in our favor first of all. We opened the season against the worst team in FBS, Akron. After a tough trip to Washington we got Maine and Colgate at home. Say what you want about the quality of opponent but I really think the 3-1 start gave this team a psychological edge that it had lacked in years past. We've been scheduling so tough OOC that we usually got ourselves in a hole by the time conference play came around. Not this year.
Couple that with the fact that the Big East is down. WAY down. I knew we would have a shot to beat West Virginia, USF or Cincinnati when the season began. I didn't realize we'd have a shot to beat them all! Remember, we hadn't beaten any of those teams in five years.
If you have to point to something specific about our play, its the defense. They've really clamped down a lot of the time on offenses, especially when that offense can't run the ball. We've given our offense a lot of opportunities, ones they don't always take advantage of... We knew the defense was going to be good but we didn't realize it would be this good. DC Scott Shafer gets a lot of credit for that.
And finally, cheesy as it is, Doug Marrone changed the culture. He got these guys to buy in. And that's saying something considering so many of their teammates quit the team over the last two years. These are guys who were desperate to win again, especially the seniors, and he showed them how.
BCI: Syracuse finished the season 4-0 on the road in the Big East, losing their only conference games at home in the Dome. What's going on here? Some sort of reverse-home field advantage? Simply a product of the schedule? What's up with the Orange's success on the road and lack thereof at home?
TNIAAM: We're not really sure. I suppose you could point to the fact that we played Pitt and UConn, the two top teams in the conference, at home. But that doesn't explain Louisville. Long story short, I think we just happened to get pushed around by bigger, stronger teams in those games. These were teams with physical lines, pounding running games and efficient offenses.
Even is a lot of our wins, the offense has struggled mightily. There's only so much our defense can do. So if the offense completely shuts down, like it did against UConn, it doesn't really matter.
BCI: Statistically, Syracuse has had one of the country's top ranked defenses the past two seasons. Just two years ago, Cuse had one of the worst defenses in the nation under Greg Robinson. Once Marrone got there, the defensive turnaround, at least statistically, has been nothing short of incredible. What are the reasons for the dramatic turnaround? How has Marrone, a coach with a pedigree on the offensive side of the ball, been able to get the defense playing so well so quickly?
TNIAAM: Two words...Scott Shafer. We got Shafer in a "trade" with Michigan. If you can believe it, they fired him and hired Robinson to run their defense. How's that working out for you?
Aside from that one year at Michigan, Shafer has one of the most impressive resumes out there. He's going to be a head coach sooner than later and I fear he might be coaching a SEC or Big Ten defense even sooner. I mean, he went from the MAC to Stanford to Michigan in about two years time.
He loves to attack, he loves to blitz and he loves to make sure his defense is "the camera club." He has something called The Bone that he hands out to the player with the biggest hit each week. I know most defensive coordinators are like this, but Shafer's just better most coordinators.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have one of the best linebacking corps in Syracuse history. Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue are All-Big East players known for 10+ tackle games and a being great leaders. The defensive line is anchored by Chandler Jones, Bud Tribbey and Andrew Lewis, about as solid a core as we've had in a long time. Even the secondary, long our big weakness, has some great talent with senior Michael Holmes and sophomore Shamarko Thomas.
Last year our defense looked really good because offenses just blew up our secondary, making our run defense look better than it was really was. This year, we earned those stats.
BCI: In games against FBS competition, Syracuse has scored 30+ points just once this season, which is sort of embarrassing until you realize that's one more game than BC has scored 30+ points. What has been the cause of the Orange's woes on offense? What are your expectations for the Syracuse offense when they go up against one of the best defenses they will face this season?
TNIAAM: Aside from running back, the Orange just don't have a lot of stability, experience and consistency at any one position.
The receivers are young and continue to be hit and miss. For every great catch that Van Chew and Alec Lemon make, they drop another sure-thing to kill momentum. Losing transfer Aaron Weaver for the reason early on hurt our depth as well.
Speaking of Nassib, his season has steadily gone downhill since a good start. It's only partially his fault. He's often being chased and/or hit before he has any time to do anything. His receivers just aren't able to get open for him quick enough. But still, he needs to make better decisions and he needs to really work on what he does with the ball once he is in trouble. Things go from bad to worse really quick with him.
I'm beginning to wonder if he really is the guy for the next two years. We've got plenty of young QBs who'd love his spot. It's going to be an interesting off-season of speculation.
BCI: It's Eagles-Orange to end the regular season. An old Big East rivalry renewed. So, uhh, you have our cell number, right? We should do this again sometime soon, no?
TNIAAM: I don't think we have a choice. Pretty sure we're on the schedule ninety-seven times over the next ten years. I do kinda like it. I like the idea of not only renewing this specific rivalry, but with having a special season-ending game again. It's tough to be a Big East team and try and maintain strong rivalries. Other than the Backyard Brawl, what is there?
If we're not going to end the season with Rutgers, I like the idea of playing you guys every year. The conference is decided and chances are bowl positioning is pretty-much set. That means this one's just all about beating the snot out of each other just because we want to. It's got an old school feel to it. This one's about bragging rights.
BCI: Last one. Prediction time. Who ya got in this one? What's the final score?
TNIAAM: Tough, tough call. A month ago, I would have said Syracuse wins this one by two touchdowns. Now? I'm not so sure about that. Your run defense is going to put the ball in Ryan Nassib's hands to win the game and that doesn't sound very promising. Couple that with the four-game win streak you guys are riding and our inability to win in the Dome...all signs point to an Eagle victory.
So that's why I'm saying Syracuse 16 - BC 13. Despite recent struggles, it's been a crazy, awesome season and every time people started to think the magic was over and the team was going to go back to being a bottom-feeder, they would pull something out of their ass and win the game. And so I'll stick with that...