The Newcomers: Pittsburgh vs. Syracuse
By Eric Russell
Pittsburgh and Syracuse, the ACC's newest additions, will likely have an uphill climb in their first year with the conference. Both schools are not only faced with finding an offensive leader, they will be coming to a conference with a greater degree of difficulty than the league fomerly know as the Big East. The team that will have the most success will be determined by three areas.
Syracuse wound up getting placed in the Atlantic Division, meaning they will play the conference's top two teams, Clemson and Florida State. Outside of those two games the Orange do not have as difficult of a conference schedule. They get Wake Forest, Pittsburgh and Boston College at home and winnable road games against Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and Maryland. Syracuse also gets four weeks to work out any early-season issues before facing a conference opponent.
Pittsburgh, however, will face ACC opponents in four of its first five games. They also landed in the more competitive Coastal Division. The Panthers have tough road games against Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Duke. Their home schedule is grueling as well. They open the season against cross-division opponent Florida State. The rest of the Panthers' home schedule includes, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia.
Both squads have a solid defense and return some of the key players on that side of the ball. The offense is were the two teams differentiate in terms on talent.
Pittsburgh came into the spring knowing it would have to replace its quarterback and work on its offensive line. What they didn't know was they would also be looking to replace Rushel Shell, who many believed would be the starting running back for the Panthers. The team is left with a group of untested backs on their roster. Issac Bennett and Malcom Crockett have a combined career total of 428 yards in limited action.
As for the Panthers' quarterback situation, Tom Savage has had some ups and donws this spring as reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The fact Savage has experience as a starter may put Pittsburgh in a better position than Syracuse in its quarterback search.
Syracuse has a wealth of candidates for its job and Scott Shafer has even alluded to using more than one. None of the options have much experience under center. Unlike Pittsburgh, Syracuse doesn't have to worry about the run game as they return Jerome Smith. He rushed for 1,171 yards last seaon.
The Orange did lose their top two receiving options from last season. The absence of Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales will be felt but transfer Quinta Funderburk is a talented receiver who can make big plays for Syracuse.
EDGE: Pittsburgh (slight)
Paul Chryst's first season with Pittsburgh started rough. His team suffered a two-touchdown loss to Youngstown State and a lopsided loss to Cincinnati. Chryst was able to turn it around. The Panthers had impressive showings in wins over Virginia Tech and Rutgers. They even played well against Notre Dame in a triple-overtime loss.
Chryst is an offensive coach — he was the coordinator at Wisconsin before arriving at Pittsburgh. In his time as the Badgers coordinator Chryst was able to basically shift his offensive approach on a dime to accomodate Russell Wilson when he arrived. Chryst also improved Pittsburgh's passing game in his first season and lead them to a bowl game.
Shafer came up in the coaching ranks as a defensive coach. He is part of the reason Syracuse's defense is at the level it is and wants to continue to improve. The Orange's 24.8 points allowed per game last season would've been good enough to tie them for third in the ACC. In his brief time as the head coach Shafer has become known as a tough coach with a hard-nosed approach.
That mentality combined with his desire to change the perception of the Syracuse football program should make for a good run at the university. Shafer also wnats to usher in an up-tempo offensive approach.Shafer has all the skills needed, now it's a matter of seeing how that translates to the field.
Syracuse is currently in the best position to have success based on the fact they have a more favorable schedule and the playmakers they have. However, as it stands now, it's not likely either team will be making a run at their division's top spot.