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By the numbers: Orange offense has big holes

2/26/2015

In a year in which Wake Forest posted historically bad numbers on offense, it's telling that there might actually be less optimism about what's in store for 2015 at Syracuse than there is in Winston-Salem. At Wake, there's at least the hope that a young team will learn from the struggles and get better. At Syracuse, the situation feels far more untenable.

Here's why: As bad as Wake was throughout 2014, there was at least small fragments of progress. And over the final half of the season, there's no question Syracuse actually had the worse offense.

Over those last five games, Syracuse scored 47 points, the fewest in the nation by a touchdown. In the past decade, there have been 734 seasons played by AQ or Power 5 teams, and only two -- 2008 Washington and 2009 Washington State -- scored fewer points over their final five games. Those two teams finished a combined 1-23.

That's about as bad as it gets -- and in some areas, markedly worse even than what was happening at Wake Forest at the same time. It's not surprising either that, despite a defense that ranked 18th nationally during that same stretch, the Orange finished by losing five straight.

Now that defense figures to have grave concerns, too. Eight of Syracuse's top 10 tacklers from 2014 are gone, including Dyshawn Davis, Durell Eskridge and Cameron Lynch. As coordinator Chuck Bullough told Syracuse.com, it's going to be “a challenging year” on D.

So, is there any hope for the Orange in 2015?

The reality is that Syracuse isn't going to challenge for the Atlantic, and the most likely scenario is another long, painful season. But historical precedent doesn't necessarily doom the Orange, and there's reason to think last year's dreadful conclusion wasn't an accurate representation of the real Syracuse offense.

Tim Lester took over as offensive coordinator midyear, and he couldn't change much at the time.

Terrel Hunt was injured, and Syracuse cycled through young QBs after that. The offensive line was bruised and battered with numerous starters missing time.

"It was the perfect storm," Lester said.

In other words, the Syracuse offense of 2015 won't be the Syracuse offense of 2014 by any real approximation, and change of any sort after a stretch like that is an upgrade.

Overall last year, Syracuse had a touchdown rate (TD/drives) of just 8.4 percent vs. its Power 5 opponents. Since 2004, only three teams have posted a lower rate, and only 14 total have posted a rate worse than 10 percent. Oddly, three of those others happened in 2014 (Wake, Vanderbilt and Penn State, which miraculously finished 7-6).

Seven of those teams improved their win total the following year, which is good news for Syracuse. Of course, since the average team on that list won only 2.5 games, there wasn't much room to go but up.

Still, there were noteworthy names.

  • In 2006, Stanford went 1-11 while posting a TD rate of 6.0 percent -- the worst (by a wide margin) of any Power 5 team in this study. A year later, with Jim Harbaugh on board as coach, the Cardinal added three wins to their total and doubled its TD rate to 12.4 percent.

  • In 2008, Auburn finished 5-7 with a TD rate of 8.5 percent. A year later, with Gene Chizik taking over as head coach, the Tigers jumped to eight wins with a TD rate of 24.4 percent.

  • In 2011, Ole Miss was a dismal 2-10 with a TD rate of 10 percent. A year later, Hugh Freeze came aboard as head coach and the Rebels won seven games and upped their TD rate to 22.6 percent.

  • And most notably, in 2012, Auburn again was awful offensively, posting a TD rate of 8.2 percent and finishing the year just 3-9. A year later, with Gus Malzahn taking over as head coach, Auburn scored TDs on 32.7 percent of its drives vs. Power 5 foes and played for a national championship.

Perhaps you've noticed a common thread here. Each improved dramatically only after a change in leadership at the top. Malzahn, Freeze and Harbaugh were all offensive-minded head coaches, and while Chizik was not, he did have Malzahn as his OC in 2009.

At Syracuse, the 2015 season will feature many of the same key players -- Lester, Hunt and head coach Scott Shafer chief among them -- who were around last year. That's got a lot of Orange fans doubtful that much will change.

But perhaps things aren't quite so bad. A healthy Hunt has to be an improvement over the QB quagmire of last year's second half, and he spent the latter half of last season in the coaches box with Lester, learning and watching the game from a new angle. Lester now has a chance to install his own offense, and he's focused on using his quarterback's strengths. The Atlantic was stacked with strong defenses a year ago, but that should shift a bit in 2015. Maybe.

"[Last year,] I didn't put anything in moving forward with the offense. I just did the best job with the things we'd been doing since I got here," Lester said. "At this point, I'm putting in my offense, our offense, and it's formations, names, cadence, everything. If we're going to go, we're going with something I've run, I have experience with, and our coaches can do a great job teaching. We've carried over two or three pass names or formation names, but other than that, everything else is new."

It's spring -- even in a place like Syracuse, where there's still snow on the ground and dismal memories of last season in the air -- so there's hope.

"We're trying to make the transition as easy possible, but they're all fired up about what we're doing," Lester said. "It's a fresh start."