Syracuse is beginning anew under first-year coach Doug Marrone, hoping for better results after seven consecutive seasons without a winning record. The first step to reversing that dubious trend is adding better players.
That was accomplished in part when Williams, an All-Big East wide receiver in 2007, returned to the Orange after a yearlong suspension. Williams caught 60 passes for 837 yards in '07. Last season, Syracuse's leading receiver had 29 catches for fewer than 400 yards.
Williams always has been talented; now he says he's more mature. He was a guy who could take a pass to the end zone, which he did 10 times in '07. Now, he's also a guy who can take responsibility for his mistakes – like the egregious one that led to his exile last season.
"Basically, I got caught cheating on an exam," Williams said. "I had notes out. I've learned to take things a lot more seriously. It made me look forward to the future."
What's this? An athlete atoning for a serious transgression, then claiming he's changed his life? Of course there will be skeptics. Williams wouldn't be the first jock to claim he has learned from mistakes only to repeat them. But Syracuse receivers coach Jaime Elizondo said he feels Williams is sincere.
"When a person has finally accepted responsibility for their mistakes and no longer says 'but this' or 'but that' or 'it wasn't my fault,' he's matured," Elizondo said. "Mike has taken accountability for his mistakes. I would say he needs to continue to do that in all areas of life.
"The maturity process has happened, but still has to go on."
Williams started the process when he opted to spend last fall attending junior college in Springfield, Mass., instead of staying in Syracuse or returning to Buffalo, his home town.
"I needed to get away from Syracuse and Buffalo," he said. "Had I gone back to Buffalo, I probably would have made some bad decisions. Getting away helped me a lot."
So did his uncle, William Russell, whom Williams stayed with in Springfield. Depressed while detached from the team, Williams often thought about quitting. But Russell provided valuable guidance.
"I tried to keep him focused and talk to him about still having great opportunities ahead of him," Russell said. "He had to struggle through the hard times, but I told him there would be a good outcome if he worked hard, kept his goals in mind and put in the work.
"I'm happy I was able to help, but really the credit goes to him. … He's a good character kid and has a lot of good qualities. I'm happy to see those qualities come out."
It's easy for a star athlete to get a feeling of entitlement. Williams had one, but his attitude apparently has changed. He's become more reliable.
"Sometimes he was able to get away with a little more because he was a good player as a high school star and had some success early here," Elizondo said. "He was able to get away with things he won't get away with under Coach Marrone and this coaching staff.
"At first, communication was very poor with him. But the last two or three months, we let him know what's expected. If a situation arises and he's going to be two minutes late, he'll make you aware of it. That was the biggest problem."
His absence last season was one of several problems for Syracuse. Under then-coach Greg Robinson, the Orange struggled to a 3-9 finish – the fourth losing season in four years under Robinson.
Opponents routinely rolled up 30 points, and Syracuse's offense couldn't keep up. The running game was average and the passing game was among the worst in the country. Syracuse scored 17 or fewer points in seven games.
Maybe this season will be different. Williams said spring practice and offseason workouts have been.
"We've changed," Williams said. "We have a new coach. Everybody wants to win. We're working harder. We're practicing harder. We're doing stuff we didn't do before. We're getting up by 6 a.m. and working out.
"It's great playing for [Marrone]. He's all about winning. He wants to change now. He said he's not into rebuilding programs, that he wants to win now. If I think I made a big play, he'll tell me the little things I did wrong. Did I tuck the ball? Maybe I made a false step."
No doubt, Robinson wanted to win, too. Surely, the Orange players worked out hard last season. But there have been more concrete changes. For example, Ryan Nassib had the edge over incumbent starter Cameron Dantley at quarterback this spring, which might give the offense a boost.
"Ryan is looking good," Williams said. "He's proved to the coaches that he can be the No. 1 guy. But Cameron Dantley is looking good, too."
Whoever is throwing passes will benefit from having Williams catching them. He should be one of the best wide receivers in the Big East.
"There's no question he's dynamic enough, strong enough and has good-enough feet that he will bring an element to the offense that will definitely help," Elizondo said. "Mike is the type of player who will draw some attention his way and defenses will do some things to account for him. He'll have to do his share to win some of those one-on-one battles."
Those battles start Sept. 5 when the Orange open the season against Minnesota. Williams can't wait.
"I might be crying," he said. "I was dying without football. I feel like I have life again. I feel great to be with my teammates again and getting some catches."
This week, it's Auburn vs. Texas A&M. Each week, we'll match two teams to determine which has the edge in various categories. Got a matchup you want to see? Send it to email@example.com and we'll work on it.
Head to head
Texas A&M leads the all-time series 2-0. The most recent game was the 1985 Cotton Bowl, where A&M prevailed 36-16.
Edge: Texas A&M.
Auburn: Soaring of the War Eagle
Texas A&M: Friday night "yell practice"
Edge: Auburn. Seeing the eagle pre-game flight at Jordan-Hare Stadium is amazing.
Auburn: After big home-field wins, Auburn fans head to the intersection of College Street and Magnolia Avenue to toss rolls of toilet paper into the trees on Toomer's Corner.
Texas A&M: After home-field victories, freshman members of the A&M Corps of Cadets toss the "yell leaders" into the on-campus "Fish" pond.
Edge: Auburn. Rolling Toomer's Corner is one of college football's most colorful traditions.
NFL first-round picks
Auburn: 25 (Most recent was guard Ben Grubbs by San Diego in '07)
Texas A&M: 26 (Most recent were defensive lineman Ty Warren by New England and cornerback Sammie Davis by San Diego in '03)
Edge: Texas A&M.
Musicians and singers
Auburn: Toni Tennille of 'The Captain and Tennille,' Class of '62
Texas A&M: Lyle Lovett, Class of '79
Edge: Texas A&M. Is an explanation really necessary?
Auburn: Swimmer Rowdy Gaines won three gold medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. He once held 11 world records.
Texas A&M: Shot putter Randy Matson won the gold medal in the 1968 Mexico City Games and a silver in the '64 Tokyo Games. He broke the shot put world record four times.
Edge: Auburn. Though aided by relays, Gaines won more golds. He likely would have won even more if not for the United States' boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games.
Former coaches taken from the staff of archrivals
Auburn: Pat Dye, who came from Alabama.
Texas A&M: Emory Bellard, who came from Texas.
Edge: Auburn. Dye retired with a record of 99-39-4 from 1981-92. Bellard was 48-27-0 from 1972-78.
Auburn: "War Eagle!"
Texas A&M: "Gig 'em Aggies!"
Edge: Texas A&M. Yeah, there is a great story behind the "War Eagle" cry, but it has created some confusion about the team's mascot. "Gig 'em Aggies" leaves no doubt.
Auburn: Pat Sullivan in 1971, Bo Jackson in 1985.
Texas A&M: John David Crow in 1957.
Edge: Even though Crow was Bear Bryant's only Heisman winner, Auburn still prevails 2-1.
Auburn: The Tigers have won or shared six SEC titles. The most recent was in 2004.
Texas A&M: The Aggies have 18 championships – a Big 12 title in 1998 and 17 Southwest Conference titles.
Edge: Texas A&M.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.