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Analyzing the Atlantic: The Orange are One of the Few ACC Teams with a Returning Starter at QB

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The only problem is that it's Terrel Hunt.

Terrel Hunt won the Texas Bowl MVP and got this here hat, but his season was fraught with struggles.
Terrel Hunt won the Texas Bowl MVP and got this here hat, but his season was fraught with struggles.
Bob Levey

In part one of our six-part look at the ACC Atlantic, we examined a Wake Forest team that appears on its way to a season of significant ineptitude offensively. One rung up the ladder in the division standings from a year ago (excluding Maryland, because bye), we find another somewhat offensively challenged opponent in Syracuse. The Orange had a respectable debut season in the ACC, finishing .500 in league play and going 7-6 overall with a bowl win over Minnesota, but they scored just 17.2 points per game against BCS competition. Without bruising back Jerome Smith and its two best players defensively, Syracuse will need improved play from Terrel Hunt at quarterback to hold serve--or take a step forward--in 2014.

Last year's Syracuse game was a microcosm of N.C. State's season. The Pack held up pretty well against the pass last year but couldn't stop the run. Case in point, the Cuse game: Smith barreled for 140 yards on just 19 attempts (7.4 average) as the Pack surrendered a whopping 362 yards on the ground. Hunt, however, had one of his worst games, completing just 10 of 20 attempts for 74 yards. He was picked twice. Like so many games in year one under Dave Doeren, State was in the game late--the score was tied 10-10 with 6:13 to go--but wilted down the stretch, eventually losing 24-10.

In his second year as the Syracuse starter, Hunt will not have Smith to help shoulder the burden, as the junior made the ill-advised decision to leave early for the NFL but wasn't drafted. He'll try to make the Falcons as an UDFA. Hunt posted a 117.6 passer rating a year ago, a mark sandwiched between the ratings of the illustrious Pete Thomas (115.1) and Brandon Mitchell (120.5). Hunt's uneven play was a large reason why Syracuse was so dependent on the run to win; it averaged 235 yards and over five yards a carry in wins but 145 yards on 3.8 per tote in losses.

The Orange are not without other capable carriers; Hunt, a dual-threat QB, ran for 500 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry last year. Prince-Tyson Gulley (456 yards, 5.5 per carry), though smallish at 5-10, 190 pounds, was actually more effective on a per-carry basis than Smith or Hunt. But Gulley may not have the size to handle the load as an every-down back, and, if Cuse can't find someone to get the tough yards between the tackles, both Hunt and Gulley's production could suffer.

The line may also be in flux due to Ivan Foy's academic troubles. Foy, who started every game a year ago at right tackle, was ruled ineligible for all spring football activities but could be back on the field in the fall if he gets his academic house in order by transferring in some AFAM correspondence courses from UNC. With him, the Orange return four of five starters (with Rob Trudo switching from guard to center). Without Foy, the Orange would only project to have two linemen back at the same position in 2014.

But it's in the middle on the other side of the ball where Syracuse suffered its biggest losses. Tackle Jay Bromley went in the third round to the Giants, and middle linebacker Marquis Spruill was a fifth-round selection of the Falcons. The two combined for 29 tackles for a loss and 15.5 sacks a year ago. That's over 43% of the team's total sacks. However, the three remaining down linemen and two outside linebackers are all returning seniors, so Syracuse should remain solid in the front seven. Durell Eskridge, one of the league's top safeties, missed the spring with injury issues but should also be back.

Obligatory table:

Team

2013 Record

Returning Offensive Starters

Returning Defensive Starters

Kicker and Punter Returning

Players Lost in Draft

2013 Score

Syracuse

7-6, 4-4

8*

7

Yes to both

2

24

N.C. State

3-9, 0-8

7

8

Yes to both

1

10

*7 if Foy is not eligible

With Bromley and Spruill gone, the Orange lost more impact talent than the Pack. Bromley, in particular, has a chance to be a starter from day one in the NFL. Both teams should be fairly equal in terms of returning experience, but the returners from Syracuse have had a bit more success on the field.

Broken record alert: the Pack's chance to reverse last year's loss will hinge largely on the health and play of transfer QB Jacoby Brissett, who was just named to the preseason Maxwell Award watch list despite never having yet done anything of substance at the college level. The less duh analysis points back to that pivotal Cuse running game. State was absolutely bullied last year up front. Only B.C.'s Andre Williams and his 339-yard outburst was more embarrassing. State needs not only to get better at just about every position in Doeren's second year, it also needs to get tougher. State beats Syracuse last year even with Pete Thomas at quarterback if the defense hadn't broken out the matador capes down the stretch. Brissett should be an improvement over last year's motley crew at QB, but it might not matter against Syracuse if the Pack can't force Hunt to have to win the game through the air.

It doesn't help that this year's game is in the Carrier Dome, but it does help that State has a bye week to prepare. The Orange, on the other hand, will play the Pack after seven straight weeks of action (that includes Notre Dame, Louisville, Florida State, and Clemson). They will likely be licking their wounds a bit, not to mention taking the Pack a little more lightly than most opponents during that stretch. This scheduling advantage, coupled with a healthy dose of irrational offseason optimism, leads me to believe that this game is likely a coin flip. But check back with me in late October.