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College football: Syracuse to open season tonight versus Villanova

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SYRACUSE — Syracuse University football coach Scott Shafer has built up Villanova as a difficult opponent for tonight’s season opener, despite it being a Football Championship Subdivision team, at every opportunity over the past few weeks.

Shafer has complimented the team’s unique spread-style offense that features a barrage of trick plays and unusual formations, its dual-threat quarterback and preseason All-American John Robertson, and has consistently warned his players and SU fans that the Wildcats are a legitimate foe.

But Villanova coach Andy Talley — the former St. Lawrence University head football coach from 1979-83 — isn’t buying it.

“Syracuse has seen every formation known to man, so I’m not sure what he’d be talking about that would be unorthodox, seriously,” said Talley, who has coached the Wildcats since 1985.

“When you play in the ACC and you play around the world, there isn’t anything they haven’t seen so I really don’t understand why he would have any concerns about anything we do, frankly.”

The Orange will open its season tonight by hosting the Wildcats, ranked No. 12 in the FCS Preseason Top 25, at 7:30 in the Carrier Dome. The game will be streamed on ESPN3, an online-only channel, and is available to Time Warner Cable Sports Pass subscribers on channel 398.

The 71-year-old Talley, entering his 30th year as Villanova’s head coach, is ranked fourth among active NCAA coaches and 32nd all-time with 232 career victories.

He won 28 games in five seasons at SLU and, in 1982, led the program to one of its two undefeated regular seasons. That year, Talley was named the Division III District 1 Coach of the Year and the Saints were honored as the ECAC Team of the Year. They reached the Division III semifinals before falling to Augustana College.

At Villanova, Talley has racked up six conference titles, 10 NCAA Playoff appearances and the 2009 FCS national title.

Shafer acknowledged Talley’s success during his ACC conference call this week.

“They’ve been top 10, top 15 perennials for years and it goes back to coach (Talley) and his consistency as a leader for the program,” Shafer said. “Good challenge for our kids to go out and play one of the best in the FCS.”

During Talley’s tenure, Villanova has beaten three Football Bowl Subdivision teams in 18 attempts, most recently capturing a victory over Temple in 2009. Last season, Villanova held a 14-7 lead over Boston College at halftime before suffering a 24-14 loss.

Despite that success, Talley said he is not enthused about opening the season against an FBS foe.

“(Players) are very, very excited about the game and they can’t wait to get there, and that’s what you want (as a coach),” Talley said. “When I’m asked questions, I’m more of a realist just because I’ve been at it for 47 years and I’ve played enough (FBS) teams that, I don’t want to play another.”

Talley said his team lost three starters to injury during last season’s game against BC.

“I’m concerned about the long haul and the season,” Talley said. “We have a 12-game schedule and we’ve won a national championship, and you’ve got to stay healthy to do that. And that worries me. The game takes a lot out of you and when you’re playing a top-flight opponent behind it, it makes it rough.”

The Orange won big over its only FCS opponent last season, disposing of Wagner 54-0 in the Dome.

But the Orange struggled against Rhode Island in 2011 before claiming a 21-7 victory, and in 2012, SU trailed Stony Brook at halftime before escaping with a 24-14 win.

“Early on in my career, we struggled with FCS teams,” said senior left tackle Sean Hickey, one of the Orange’s four team-elected captains.

“I think last year we realized that and we came out and played Wagner real hard and took them the same way we took any other opponent and came away with good results. And this (Villanova) team we’re about to play is better than that Wagner team. I can’t stress enough that they’re a very good football team.”

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