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2015 season preview: Syracuse Orange

Just about everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong in 2014 for the Orange, from a season-ending injury to their starting quarterback to a demotion of their offensive coordinator. All of that spelled a 3-9 season, a major disappointment after a 7-6 campaign in Scott Shafer's debut year as head coach. Terrel Hunt is back at QB, but the usually stout defense is tasked with a major makeover after saying goodbye to eight starters.

Best-case scenario: With Tim Lester given a full season to run the offense in place of George McDonald, Hunt takes the kind of steps that many had envisioned him taking last year. The Orange run a more simplified attack and Steve Ishmael, Alvin Cornelius and Brisly Estime all emerge as playmakers in the passing game. The drop-off in coordinator Chuck Bullough's defense is minimal, with Zaire Franklin leading a strong linebacking corps. The Orange prove that 2014 was an aberration, going a surprising 7-5, a huge sigh of relief for a coaching staff in its first year under new athletic director Mark Coyle.

Worst-case scenario: Hunt fails to progress as a passer, and few playmakers rise around him, making for another dismal offensive year. Moreover, the defense fails to replace the production that went out the door with Cameron Lynch, Dyshawn Davis and Brandon Reddish, and the abundance of green second-teamers exposes the starters to too many growing pains. A tough schedule does the Orange no favors, as the program experiences its second straight 3-9 season, leading to many questions about the future of the program.

Most important player: Hunt. It may sound like a cop-out to point to the QB, but all one needs to do is look back to last season and see how things fell apart for the Orange after Hunt went down for the season with a broken left leg. Syracuse did not have a 1,000-yard passer last year, and a number of standout defensive performances went to waste, with the Orange going through four quarterbacks and notching just one win (against lowly Wake Forest) over the season's final 10 games. Hunt made tremendous strides at the end of 2013, and with so much defensive turnover in 2015, he will shoulder an even bigger burden this fall.

Breakout player: Estime. Ishmael is the Orange's top target after tallying 415 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman in 2014. But Hunt will need to rely on more than just Ishmael, and the attention the sophomore draws should set Estime up for some big opportunities, provided he is healthy. Before an injury-plagued 2014 season, Estime looked on his way to becoming a breakout player on the offense, using his speed and escapability to catch 28 balls for 257 yards and a touchdown as a freshman in 2013.

Most important game: Oct. 17 at Virginia. Having the Cavaliers as a Coastal crossover opponent is one of the few luxuries of a Syracuse schedule that features LSU coming to town Sept. 26. But the backstretch of the Orange's slate is absolutely brutal, with trips to FSU, Louisville and NC State -- along with a home tilt against Clemson -- over the season's final five weeks. So winning in Charlottesville against a UVA program facing similar issues is a must if the Orange want to go bowling, especially going into a rivalry game a week later at the Carrier Dome against Pitt, which precedes a Halloween trip to Florida State.

Class of 2015 signee to watch: Three-star Amir Ealey. The high school tight end and defensive end will play on the defensive side for the Orange at end where two seniors were lost to graduation. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound freshman from Pennsylvania should be a name seen on the field this season. -- Gerry Hamilton

Class of 2016 storyline: Winning the battle for ESPN 300 running back Robert Washington is the storyline so far, as is a second win in the state of North Carolina in versatile three-star playmaker Moe Neal. Five of the Orange's 14 commitments are from the states of Florida and Georgia. -- Gerry Hamilton