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Behind Enemy Lines: 2015 Syracuse football preview

Many fans look at this week 7 matchup and see a likely victory for Virginia. Will the Orange put up more of a fight than the Hoos expect?

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Strong defense. Recruiting better than should be expected. Questionable QB development and offensive playcalling. Blue and orange colors. 2014 Virginia Cavaliers or 2014 Syracuse Orange? Trick question: apparently both. John Cassillo of Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, SB Nation's Syracuse blog, gives us the rundown on one of Virginia's Atlantic Division cross-over opponents this year.

STL: What's the mood among the Orange about Scott Shafer? His defensive units seem to be impressive, but it looks like there are big question marks about the offense and Shafer's management of his coaching staff. How much heat is he likely to be under this year?

TNIAAM: He's certainly under some heat after a disastrous 2014 season. But he's been recruiting pretty well for 2015 (stop me if this scenario sounds familiar, UVA fans), and he switched out his offensive coordinator mid-year last year. That OC, Tim Lester, will now be implementing his offensive scheme. Its success or failure could largely decide the fate of Shafer and the staff.

STL: Who are the most important players to watch who return from last season?

TNIAAM: On offense, QB Terrel Hunt's back and healthy, and he'll be throwing the ball to sophomore wideout Steve Ishmael, who could surprise a lot of people as a legitimate downfield threat. Defensively, Ron Thompson is the guy to watch at defensive end so long as he's healthy to start the year (we'll see), and is the team's most athletic player in the front-seven. Look out for Zaire Franklin at MLB too.

STL: Which newcomers are you most excited about?

TNIAAM: I wish he didn't have to jump right in there, but we'll see plenty of frosh defensive tackle Steven Clark this season. True freshman RB Dontae Strickland is also an intriguing option in that he might be the team's most talented running back already. We'll see if he gets the chance to take over the starting gig, or if he's waiting his turn for a year (before top 2016 recruit Robert Washington shows up and pushes him for playing time).

STL: What are the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of the 2015 Orange?

TNIAAM: Strength's a tough one, admittedly, due to everyone this team replaces. But let's go with the linebackers, who've been a consistent group for SU in recent seasons. Franklin is joined by Marqez Hodge and Parris Bennett (and boatloads of depth), which will be challenged to replace long-time stalwarts like Cam Lynch and Dyshawn Davis. It sounds daunting, but they may actually be able to pull it off and keep this aggressive pass-rush intact.

Weakness? For the umpteenth straight season, it's the secondary. Teams have been able to pass on Syracuse pretty easily for some time, and that should hold true again in 2015. Julian Whigham is the only veteran DB on the team, and... well, just wait and see what results look like when you search him in SB Nation's photo tool. If this young group fails to make early strides, it will not be pretty.

STL: What does this team need to do to count this season as a success?

TNIAAM: There's two answers here. 1. Making it to 6-6 and a bowl would be a great accomplishment and one fans would celebrate and prefer. 2. Success could probably be 5-7 (a two-win improvement) AND keeping the well-regarded incoming recruiting class together. If they go 6-6 and lose some guys, or go 4-8 and keep everybody, those outcomes become... interesting territory.