There was talk of a "tougher, smarter, better conditioned" defense. There was talk about a new, cutting-edge "fast-break offense" - "85 plays a game", Surace mentioned - and a new attitude that would propel Princeton to consistently be in the running against Harvard and Yale.
It didn't quite work out that way.
Two wins and eighteen losses later, Surace goes into 2012 with much more modest expectations. Part of that is due to the struggles of the past two years, but part of that also is due to something totally unexpected - and tragic.
It was finals time for Princeton last January, and the kids in the same study group as freshman RB Chuck Dibilio knew something wasn't right with him.
"What I heard was that his arm went numb and then he started slurring his speech and then it happened," a former teammate told Jim Deegan of the Express-Times, shocking everyone who had known the Tiger freshman who had rushed for 1,068 yards his freshman year.
After being whisked away to the doctor, the diagnosis seemed impossible to believe. A stroke? In a kid so young? In the shape of his life?
It was true.
In a statement Princeton released, Dibilio's father, Chuck Dibilio Sr., says his son is recovering, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
"They removed a clot in the main artery of his brain this morning," he says. "He is currently recovering. They are trying to find out what caused it, so they can prevent it in the future. As far as a long-term prognosis, we are a long way from knowing, but we appreciate all of the support Chuck has received."
At that point, the questions didn't pertain to his football capabilities, but his ability to recover from a stroke that could have killed him. He would have to regain his ability to speak, for starters, and it was unclear whether he could recover enough to return to classes, let alone return to the football field.
Worse yet, the doctors were unable to pinpoint exactly how or why the stroke happened - only a theory.
"At (Thomas) Jefferson University Hospital (in Philadelphia), they ran a test to see if there was a hole in my heart but didn't see anything and he (Leifer) thinks it's a smaller hole," Dibilio said. "That's the main theory right now.
"That would be really great if that's the answer. If that's the cause, it's a really easy surgery. I'm not sure how the recovery is, but LB Teddy Bruschi [who also suffered a stroke as a pro] went back to football the next year. It's not a risky surgery, so I hope everything is as good as new after that."
DiBilio's progress in returning from that stroke has been remarkable.
His speech now returned, he's also finished up his coursework he missed after his stroke, and he's been working out, too, "hitting really good benchmarks", his head coach said.
"With Chuck, as exceptional as he was on the field as a rookie last year," Surace said in the Ivy League preseason teleconference today, "he's even more remarkable as a person. To make the progress he has made, it's truly a credit to him as a person."
But whether he would return to football this year, or ever, is as much of a question as the status of whether there's a hole in is heart causing the potential for stroke.
"Right now, we don't know exactly where he's going to be for the fall," Surace said. "We're waiting on some final tests and waiting on some results while waiting on a final decision. It's going to based on his ability to do this, and not risk further injury. A stroke for a 19 year-old is such an uncommon thing, there's not a lot of precedent, so whatever decision is reached will come from research and people who are a lot smarter than me."
Offensively for the Tigers, it would have been tough enough to enter the 2012 season with Dibilio at 100% and ready to go. Without him, it's an unbelievably huge task.
With the graduation of QB Tommy Wornham, PK Patrick Jacob and Dibilio's expected absence, Surace will have to find a replacement for 122 of the 174 points the Tigers scored last year - good enough for the worst scoring team in the Ivy League.
And with Princeton picked to finish last in the Ivy League preseason poll by the members of the league, it seems like others in the Ivy League feel that way as well.
The preseason.quarterback seems to be a camp competition between sophomore QB Quinn Epperly, who started a few games last year, and sophomore QB Connor Michelsen, who also saw a little bit of playing time.
Attempting to filling Dibilio's shoes may be junior RB Brian Mills (236 yards, 1 TD), another inexperienced backup.
Clearly the Tigers will be relying heavily on their defense to carry them through the early part of the season. Fortunately for Princeton, their defensive front seven provides the strength of this team.
Senior DT Caraun Reid (68 tackles, 6 tackles for loss) is the linchpin, literally and figuratively, in the Tigers' defense, while senior DE Mike Catapano (49 tackles, 10 tackles for loss) and senior LB Andrew Starks (80 tackles, 5 tackles for loss) will represent a physical, aggressive defense that for all of the Tigers' struggles last year was always tough at stuffing the run.
“Caraun (Reid) is a player that leads by example,” Surace said on the conference all. “The defense follows his lead. He is not only an intense football player, he is a great human being as well.”
As Princeton's opening-day opposition, Lehigh always gets the healthiest Princeton team on the year, not to mention the strange situation of the Tigers having three extra weeks of film of preparation for the Mountain Hawks, making this game tougher than it at first might seem to suggest.
But Princeton, whose suffered something that no team should suffer through, will be a deeply-motivated opponent for reasons well beyond Lehigh's won/loss record. Whether he suits up or not, they'll be fighting for Chuck.