Syracuse, South Florida face reality check

Leading off his Monday news conference, Doug Marrone rattled off Syracuse's ugly statistics against South Florida since 2005. Among them: The Bulls have 814 more yards than the Orange in that span, 3.4 more sacks per game and have caused two more turnovers per contest. USF has outscored Syracuse 174-53 since joining the Big East.

"They pretty much have dominated us," Marrone said.

In fact, it has probably been the most lopsided series in the league not involving West Virginia. But this weekend's conference opener for both teams in Tampa is more about the present than the past. We will begin to find out just how good each of these teams is right now.

Each comes into the game with a 3-1 record that is filled with a lot of questions. Syracuse registered its victories against 0-5 Akron and FCS teams Maine and Colgate. South Florida has beaten Stony Brook, Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic (combined record: 2-10). Both lost their high-profile nonconference matchups on the road in Week 2; the Orange fell to Washington 41-20, while the Bulls' mistake-filled second half resulted in a 38-14 defeat at Florida.

Statistically speaking, the teams look like equals. Syracuse is averaging 32.2 points per game, while USF is putting up 32.0. On defense, the Orange are allowing 16.2 to the Bulls' 16.8. Again, though, the level of competition each team has played raises questions about the legitimacy of those numbers.

A simple eyeball test tells you both teams are better than a year ago. Skip Holtz is in his first year at South Florida, but he said when he compared the film of last year's Orange to this season, the improvement was obvious. He heaped praise on quarterback Ryan Nassib, who's leading the Big East in pass efficiency.

"He's the engine room making it work," Holtz said. "Nassib is a special player."

Marrone returned the favor by saying the Bulls look better to him this year than they did a season ago. He said Holtz's team is playing with more discipline and hustle than he saw before, and that the defensive line -- even without NFL players George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul -- is working together better as a unit.

"It's going to be a great challenge for us," Marrone said. "But we're a much more competitive team than we were a year ago."

Saturday's game could help determine if either of these teams is a real contender in the Big East, not to mention its impact on possible bowl outcomes.

Syracuse is hoping to go bowling this year for the first time since 2004, but with two wins over FCS teams and only one nonconference game (Boston College) left, the Orange will have to win at least three league games to assure postseason eligibility. They've won four total Big East games in the past five years combined. With road games remaining against West Virginia, Cincinnati and Miami, the Bulls can't afford to let any winnable home games slip away.

As Marrone can tell you, the Syracuse-South Florida series has rarely been in doubt. There are all kinds of doubts surrounding both teams this week, but many of those will be answered on Saturday.