Syracuse Football: What Options Does Syracuse Have (Option?)
Before 1987, Syracuse was a very similar program that it has been in the past several years–fighting for (rarer) bowl spots. Then, Don McPherson led Syracuse on a magical 1987 season that culminated with an 11-0 record and ultimately a tie with Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. A few years later, Marvin Graves would lead Syracuse to back-to-back 10-win seasons, two of just four such seasons in the Carrier Dome era. While Donovan McNabb’s NFL career gives him notoriety, it was Don McPherson that led Syracuse from being a regional also-ran to a team that could compete on a national level. In the years since McNabb, Syracuse has struggled to be above .500. There are anomalies, including a 10-win season and an 8-win season… and there is also the Greg Robinson era falling considerably on the bad side of the mediocre bell curve. In any event, the question is–how does Syracuse get back to being nationally relevant in football? Maybe it is as simple as going back to what worked in the 1980’s.
The Syracuse team in 1987 was dynamic. During the regular season, they scored less than 24 points once and gave up more than 21 points once. They were 10th in scoring on offense and 10th in scoring on defense. That will get it done. Of course, it is a different era now. In those days, 10th in scoring meant 31 points per game. Now, 50 teams average more than that per game. You have to put points on the board to win. Getting to 31 points per game (sadly, a 13-point per game increase in 2014) would mean mere mediocrity. How does Syracuse go from 120th in the nation in offense to something impressive?
Well, you are what you are. Syracuse cannot just take half of the best 25 players from New York and compete nationally. As a private school, it does not have hundreds of thousands of alumni. And Syracuse simply does not have the football program to win recruiting battles over the elite schools. Of course, it wasn’t in 1987 either.
What Syracuse did have was a unique offense. The option–and later the freeze option–were difficult for average teams to stop. While a school like Miami could rely on raw athleticism to defeat it, Syracuse was able to beat very good programs like Clemson and Florida.
Perhaps Syracuse should go back to being an option team.
Granted, few teams are using it. But sometimes that it the best situation–when the world “zigs,” you zag. Syracuse is not going to land a top 20 pocket passer. Syracuse is not going to land a top 20 dual-threat QB. Syracuse may be able to develop players into being drafted in the NFL (see Ryan Nassib), but Syracuse did just fine at a time when its QBs were not being groomed for NFL success (see McPherson, Graves).
And who is using an option right now? Think Georgia Tech and Navy. The downside with the option is that the ACC would have two teams using it. That would lead to more familiarity than otherwise. But it is still a battle for college kids to prepare for. And Navy’s option put 39 points up against Notre Dame, while Syracuse managed 15. And there is no reason why a Syracuse QB could not incorporate a passing threat into the more traditional option, as Don McPherson was able to do.
In fact, it is more likely that Syracuse can recruit the players to run an option–smaller offensive linemen and undersized running backs. This may not be what the NFL wants, but placing one or two players in each NFL draft has not led Syracuse to prominence either. Maybe the best option moving forward is the option.
What do you think? Would you like to see Syracuse go back to the option?
Interesting idea, however I’m not sure if trying to install a gimmick offense is the salve for SU’s woes. Realistically, it takes years to recruit and develop kids to fit a particular system, especially one that is seldom used at the high school level. So, effectively you’re going to be asking the fan base, and the alumni, to be patient for a few years while we try something new/different.
Unfortunately, this fanbase (consistent with all fanbases in the country) do not have that kind of patience. They may have given an extra year or two for Marrone, since he had already built some very good capital with the fanbase (2 bowl wins, co-BE champ), but Scott Shafer is on thin-ice. I’m sure that i’m not the only fan who is very skeptical of Shafer – not just for his ability to run the program, but also of his knowledge of the game of football.
As we’ve seen in the past, bringing in a new coach, a new coordinator, and a new system has not been successful either. Look at GRob’s West Coast offense, or Marrone’s Pro-style offense. Both were utter failures. We saw it again with McDonald’s “N-zone” offense this year, and Tim Lester will inevitably want to install his 12-man personnel once we get 2 TE’s that are good enough (which given the recent commit of JUCO transfer, Trey Dunkelberger, leads me to belief that is exactly what we’ll see next year).
Where SU did find success offensively over the years was: 1) give the ball to our biggest/best tailback and tell him to run north-south, and when you have a QB that is smart enough to run it, then 2) zone-read offense.
It is that latter, however, that speaks more-so to how the team needs to prepare their offense. Instead of picking an offensive philosophy and trying to mold the team to that style, you need to evaluate the players that you have, and create an offense that best matches their skill-set.
Defensively, that is what we do. SU is not committed to being a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense, instead they are committed to two things: 1) stopping the run, and 2) getting after the QB. To do this, they take the best athletes available, and try to put them in positions to take advantage of the best match-ups. How they do that differs depending on the QB and the situation. Its molding the scheme to the players.
Offense needs to do the same; if that means coming up with a brand new scheme every week depending on who the other team is, then I’m fine with that, but trying to mold the players to the scheme seldom works.
What SU needs on offense is a Coordinator who can develop an offense based on the best players. That could be a freeze-option with AJ Long (which we have seen a little bit of), it could more of a pro-style offense with Austin Wilson, or zone/read with Mitch Kimble, or it could be something completely different in 3 years under Alin Eduoard.
We saw this under Marrone/Hackett when they decided to scrap the playbook & the pro-style offense 2 weeks before the regular season, and instead go with a very simple zone-read. They had the offensive weapons for a run-first offense, and a QB that was smart enough to look at a defense and decide if we should run, pass, or QB keep; much simpler than a freeze-option, but basically the same principles of taking advantage of what the defense gives you. If you look back on that season, you’ll see that SU runs the same base play over-and-over, but the results are different depending on what the defense gives you.
In McDonald’s defense, if there was ever a year to try and install the N-Zone/zone read, it was this year. We had an experienced, mobile QB, a stable of RBs, some of the faster wide-outs that the team has seen, and an experience O-Line. Unfortunately, it only came together once: against Central Michigan, and injuries really took their toll on the team. I also question the intelligence of Hunt and his ability to read the defense properly, or perhaps his lack of trust in anyone but himself on offense…
I also think you had a situation where the HC is too concerned with what people are saying about him & the team, contrary to what Brent Axe says about Marrone, I think the guy had the resolve to say, “fuck it, this is my team, and you can’t do any better”. If that meant starting a QB who hadn’t played football in 4 years, he’ll do it. If that means kicking 23 players off the roster, so be it. It’s Marrone’s way or the highway.
Shafer is all over the place, is slow to make decision (see benching Drew Allen), and tries too hard to please everyone. It’s not going to work.
Marrone was also the beneficiary of some easy scheduling, but that’s a different topic….
Also, for what it’s worth, I found this great quote by Chip Kelly:
“Culture wins football. Culture will beat scheme every day.”
You cannot have a new offense every week when you are limited to 20 weeks of practice and some of that is devoted to the fundamentals.