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Syracuse football enjoyed successful overall season

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Scott Shafer was soaked in Gatorade and Terrel Hunt donned a cowboy hat.

The Syracuse University head coach and quarterback, both rookies, grinned from ear-to-ear as they sat at the press conference following SU’s dramatic 21-17 comeback victory over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl just more than a week ago.

It was a fun end to a season of extremes that has to leave even the most demanding Orange fans satisfied.

In its first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference, SU went 7-6 and captured its third bowl victory in four years. The Orange finished third in the Atlantic Division — behind top-ranked No. 1 Florida State and No. 12 Clemson — after being picked to finish last in preseason media polls.

Here is a look at the ups and downs of what turned out to be a memorable SU football season, and an early glance at 2014:

PRESEASON

This season was supposed to be one of transition for the Orange, moving from the Big East to the more competitive ACC with a rookie head coach after Doug Marrone bolted for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

Shafer was promoted from defensive coordinator and, after his highly-entertaining introductory press conference, had to replace the following: All but two of his primary assistant coaches; Ryan Nassib, a three-year starter at quarterback with every SU career passing record except touchdowns; Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales, who rank first and sixth, respectively, in career receptions in program history; Justin Pugh, a first-round NFL draft pick at left tackle; and Shamarko Thomas, 2012’s leading tackler and the emotional leader of the defense.

THE LOWS

The Orange lost to both Florida State and Georgia Tech by 50 points or more, and was also blown out by then third-ranked Clemson after packing the Carrier Dome for its homecoming game. The 49-14 beat-down was the team’s highest-attended game in 13 years.

SU struggled out of the gate to an 0-2 start behind senior quarterback Drew Allen, a spring transfer from the University of Oklahoma. Allen was benched during the third game of the season in favor of the sophomore Hunt and never started again. The team’s quarterback controversy lasted all of preseason and a month into the regular season until Shafer finally settled in with Hunt.

SU’s passing game struggled, ranking outside of the top 100 nationally after finishing 23rd in 2012. Hunt ate up a pair of weaker foes in his first two games and showed promise in his last two, but in between he was inconsistent and hindered the SU offense with his inability to connect with his receivers on deep plays.

THE HIGHS

The season came to a thrilling climax for the Orange. Hunt rallied SU to game-winning touchdowns on its final possessions in both the Texas Bowl and the regular season finale against Boston College to clinch bowl eligibility.

SU’s defense was stout all year, finishing as the only team in the country to not allow a 100-yard rusher despite a matchup against the nation’s leader, BC’s Andre Williams.

The Orange defense ranked in the top 30 nationally in rush defense, tackles for loss, sacks, first-down defense and third-down defense.

SU’s balanced rushing attack — without a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in six years — finished with its highest per-game average (193) since the 2000 season and topped the 200-yard mark in five games.

SU showed an unmatched ability to bounce back from its lopsided losses. It was one of 27 teams in the nation to lose at least four games by 21 points, and the only team to win the following week at least three times.

A LOOK AHEAD

The Orange seems to have found its leader on offense with Hunt. His first season was shaky overall and Shafer will push him with competition in the spring and summer, but the sophomore showed enough late in the year — throwing for then running in the game-winning touchdown in his final two games — to leave fans feeling optimistic about his future.

Freshman running back George Morris II is an intriguing talent and should be a suitable replacement for Jerome Smith, leaving for the NFL Draft, as the lead running back. Prince-Tyson Gulley will be back to comprise his change-of-pace role. SU could struggle to replace three-year starter Macky MacPherson at center, and left tackle Sean Hickey if he decides to forgo his senior year for the NFL Draft.

Sophomore Ashton Broyld and freshman Brisly Estime proved to be excellent short and medium-range targets in the passing game, but SU desperately needs to find a big, downfield target for next season. Freshmen Alvin Cornelius III and tight end Josh Parris developed good chemistry with Hunt late in the year. Another player to watch is four-star commit K.J. Williams, a 6-foot-2, 190-pounder from Pennsylvania who was also recruited by Miami (Fla.) and Michigan.

On defense, Safety Durrell Eskridge appears poised to emerge as the leader. The sophomore topped SU with 78 tackles and four interceptions this season and the coaching staff raved about his maturity.

Dyshawn Davis is another major player back at linebacker. Spruill and Bromley will be difficult to replace, but the majority of a strong defensive unit will be back next year.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall, the first year of the Shafer era has to be considered a success. And with that comes greater expectations from a fan base seeking national relevance for the first time since Donovan McNabb left 15 years ago.

As fun as the end of 2013 was, when the Gatorade is washed off and the cowboy hats are thrown in the closet, the Orange still has a long way to go to play with the ACC powers like the one you’ll see in Monday’s BCS National Championship.

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