Nobody put much stock in a rebound from Syracuse last season, mostly because the program had been down for so long. The last bowl game came in 2004; the last bowl win in 2001.
But the Orange were one of the surprise teams of the 2010 season, making it back to a bowl game in Year 2 under coach Doug Marrone. As difficult as it was to turn around a losing program, perhaps an even bigger challenge awaits in Year 3: maintaining that momentum and moving forward.
Coaches always talk about the difficulty in sustaining success because so much is required of both players and coaches. All of a sudden, expectations are ratcheted up and everybody expects more wins and championships to follow. Syracuse was picked to finish fourth in the Big East preseason media poll, a clear indication of the respect that was earned with a 8-5 campaign in 2010.
So how do the Orange keep the momentum going that they built last season?
"We really don't talk a lot about last year," Marrone said. "But I do understand the question about what we're trying to do. Our goal is to be able to compete for a Big East championship. We've talked about that with our players. We want to be a consistent football team and one year doesn’t make you consistent. We haven't produced back-to-back winning seasons since 2001 or back-to-back bowl games since 1999. We haven't won a season opener two years in a row since 2000. There's a lot of things in terms of history because recently we have not been a good football team. This is what we're trying to change."
There was a time, of course, when Syracuse was a very good football team that competed for Big East championships. Marrone has his team pointed back in that direction. The offense has solid players in Antwon Bailey, Ryan Nassib, Van Chew, Alec Lemon and the entire offensive line. The defense is new this season, with six new starters, including both cornerbacks, both defensive tackles and true freshman Dyshawn Davis at linebacker.
Because of the youth, much of camp was spent teaching.
"When nobody’s looking is when you win games," defensive coordinator Scott Shafer said. "We watch video together and talk about what’s good, bad, unacceptable, acceptable and teach the kids what we’re looking for and the next day try to make real small improvements. If we can keep chipping away, we can be a competitive defense and give our offense a chance to get some drives and do things."
The opener provides a big test Thursday night. Wake Forest may have had a losing season last year, but it was not too long ago that the Demon Deacons were playing in the Orange Bowl as ACC champs. Syracuse does not have a great record against the ACC, going 1-12 against teams from that league since 1996. The strength of Wake Forest is in the backfield, where Josh Harris led the team with 720 yards rushing last season. He averaged 5.7 yards a carry -- the third-highest average in school history.
Syracuse has four new starters among its front seven and a new middle linebacker in Marquis Spruill, who started last season on the outside. So Wake most likely will try to pound Harris to perhaps expose some weaknesses in the Syracuse front. If Syracuse can contain him, the Orange will increase its chances of starting the season with another confidence-boosting win.
"It's not just the season opener," Marrone said. "It's every single game we play until we start winning and becoming consistent, history will be against us. Everyone says you want to get off to a fast start. You do because every game is meaningful. For us, every game's a dogfight."