A lot has been made of Syracuse's schedule this season, and rightfully so. The Orange desperately need to return to a bowl this year, but face a gambit of out of conference foes - Northwestern, USC, Minnesota, Missouri, and even a Stony Brook team that's been hoarding BCS-level players via transfer - that stand in its way. This doesn't even factor in the Big East slate, which is always up in the air, as Syracuse fans know. One year the Orange march into Raymond James and Milan Puskar Stadiums and pull off unexpected wins, the next it hands games to Rutgers and UConn.
The Big East is always unpredictable, and Syracuse has a habit of tailing off towards the end of the year, so Doug Marrone and company are going to want to get a good jump on this season as they have the last two years. The Orange shouldn't have trouble with Stony Brook, even with their Big Ten running back, and Minnesota has been reeling as a program since Syracuse last faced them in 2009. Both should be wins if Syracuse expects to find itself in a bowl. On the flip side, beating USC would be a bonafide miracle, and Missouri is a very tough opponent in its own right, and one who we're not familiar with.
That leaves Northwestern, a team that we have a bit of recent history with, and the opponent on the schedule who may be the most direct match for Syracuse in terms of ability.
In 2010, Syracuse opened the season at 6-2 (two wins against FCS opponents Maine and Colgate) before limping into bowl season with a 1-3 mark in its last four games. In 2011, SU was 5-2 following the tremendous Friday night upset of West Virginia, and then went on to collapse, losing five games to finish the season and miss a bowl. While no one should actively plan for an end-of-season swoon, it seems to be the pattern with this program right now.
This makes the early season games that much more important, especially the swing games like Northwestern.
A win over the Wildcats not only starts the season off on the right foot, and gives the squad positive momentum going into the USC game, but it may help galvanize the fans as well. Two straight losses to start the year would mean about 18,000 people show up to the Stony Brook game, and as we've seen in years past, getting the fans back out once they've packed it in is a struggle.
In order to make a bowl this year, winning the games that Syracuse "should" win may not be enough. They're going to need to steal a game here, and take a toss up there. The most important of these may very well be a week from tomorrow in the Carrier Dome.