<
>

Biggest questions at Syracuse are on defense

The folks over at Nunes Magician are doing some closer looks at each of Syracuse's potential impact players this season, and Wednesday's entry is a key one.

On middle linebacker Zaire Franklin, there's a clear enthusiasm about what the sophomore can accomplish, but the focus on him also underscores the big need for the Orange in 2015.

"He's the leading returning tackler for the Orange, which says about as much about Franklin's early success as it does about how much Syracuse lost on defense," the blog writes. "With all of the turnover on defense, Franklin's ascension will be more of a necessity than a luxury."

It's hard to argue with that notion. While the bulk of the offseason buzz (or worry, as the case may be) has surrounded an offense that was downright dismal last season, the bigger question for the Orange may be whether coordinator Chuck Bullough can rebuild the defense after losing a ton of talent.

On the offensive side of the ball, there's really nowhere to go but up. As Syracuse.com noted earlier this week, the Orange used only one cadence all year on offense. That's how bad things were and how young the unit was. After Terrel Hunt went down with an injury and Tim Lester was promoted to offensive coordinator, Syracuse averaged just 13.9 points per game -- the worst rate among Power 5 teams. But the silver lining there is that Hunt is healthy, Lester has had time to implement his system and, really, there's nowhere to go but up.

With Hunt at QB the past two years, Syracuse averaged 22.4 points per game -- though the bulk of that came against non-Power 5 teams. If the Orange can approach that level offensively this season (and, keep in mind, that's still the sixth-worst rate among Power 5 schools during that stretch), they can at least be competitive offensively.

But it's been the D that has carried Scott Shafer's crew throughout the past two years. In 2013, Syracuse held seven opponents to 20 points or less. In 2014, the Orange defense ranked 29th nationally in defensive expected points added (while its offense ranked 116th).

Of course, these are two sides of the same coin, too. If Syracuse's offense is better, there's less pressure on the D. If the QBs account for fewer turnovers, the field position game should improve. If Lester continues to slow-play things offensively, it should take some pressure off the defense (Syracuse faced just 151 drives last year, the fourth-fewest in the Power 5).

Still, Shafer and Bullough need to find some personnel answers. From Franklin to Ron Thompson to Julian Wingham, there are some established pieces. And in Kayton Samuels, Parris Bennett and Antwan Cordy, there are some emerging players warranting enthusiasm. So it's not all dire, but there are big questions still looming, and fall camp will likely be as much (or more) about the defense than it is the offense.

Syracuse is widely considered an afterthought in the ACC this year, but so many of the predictions have been based on that offense. Don't be surprised, though, if the season is made or broken by what happens on D.