Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Syracuse's demolition of West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl gives the upcoming offseason a vaguely familiar scent of...hope. Real, honest-to-goodness, excitement for the program.
It's the oldest known phrase in the sports vernacular (besides, "You Suck!"): There's always next year.
Your team practically mathematically eliminated from the post-season weeks into a new year (Mets)? There's always next year. Your team tanks out at the end of particularly frustrating season (Bears)? There's always next year. It's the cynicists closest thing to hope.
For Syracuse Orange football fans, there's always next year came early and often. Usually meaning the current season was so bad, things could only get better. They just had to get better. Even though we all knew better.
There is another side it all. And for the first time in a long time, Orange fans are in that boat. Actually looking ahead not to blind themselves of the here and now but because things are...good.
Saturday was just a win in a bowl that didn't even exist four years ago. Sure, this beat down of West Virginia was played in the Bronx and not in something called Miami Gardens. But still, given how Syracuse finished 2012, winning 7 of its last 9 games, including the Pinstripe victory, and looking around at some of the expected returnees, hopes are high in and around Central New York.
It's very reminiscent of the winter of 1996. That fall prior, an unranked Orangemen team started the year on the road at top 25 North Carolina. Expected to lose, most people figured SU would hoover around 6 wins for the season and likely miss out on another bowl trip -- for what would be the third time in three years. Things didn't go as planned. As Donovan McNabb electrified Syracuse, helping it beat the Tar Heels and leading the team all the way to Florida and the Gator Bowl -- where the Orange pummeled Clemson. That season was a wild ride full of both unexpected highs and lows finishing with an exclamation point.
And it was afterward, the following winter and spring, were you could sense something was different. A general buzz surrounding Syracuse football -- first time in a long time. Again, a ton of that excitement had to do with McNabb, who was the face of the team. Beyond McNabb though, football was fun again and the program responded by playing in a bowl game at the end of the next four seasons, including the Fiesta and Orange. The program turned in that '95 season with a thundering crescendo in the Gator Bowl and fans, players, and coaches could sense it.
Is that the case now? Syracuse, fresh off its nationally televised bowl victory, is on high. A team with future NFL players, a coach considered a rising star by most. In 2010, following the first Pinstripe win, there was a sense of relief from the fans. Almost a collective I'm-just-glad-they-finally-played-in-a-bowl-again exhale. This time, there is an expectation that things are only getting better. There is a different, rare, air here.
Of course, there are a ton of question marks. For all the hope and belief that this program has finally, truly turned around, there is a lot of wonder and worry. Just look at the issues facing Syracuse for 2013 alone:
- Quarterback - Ryan Nassib is walking out that door, who's got next? Will it finally be Charley Loeb's time? (We know Sean has his fingers crossed.) What about Zach Allen or Austin Wilson? They're two incoming freshmen with plans to be under center for Doug Marrone for years to come. And the thing is, I don't know if Marrone has any idea who is going to be playing QB next fall. That's a scary thought for a program on the rise. Breaking in a new quarterback costs teams games, period. Will it cost SU winnable ones? I'm banking it won't, but this is as big an issue a team can have. (Plus, will Justin Pugh be blocking for the new guy? Probably not. Another big problem.)
- Atlantic Coast Conference - Syracuse wins two bowl games in three years, picks up huge wins against rivals in that time, on the road nonetheless, and even shares a piece of the league title this past season. Its reward? Leaving everything players, coaches, and fans have ever known to venture off to the very foreign ACC. As it stands the Orange will be playing Florida State and Clemson next season, other than that, things aren't exactly too bad off. But one has to wonder if the move itself will be problem enough?
- Bone-headed Plays - Honestly, in four years of Marrone, it's tough to criticize much, right? The guy has made SU football good again for crying out loud. But, I think we can all agree, if there is one major point of contention it's Marrone's teams make too many bone-headed mistakes. Be it a stupid penalty or just a stupid, "What was he thinking!" play. Or even the dreaded stupid penalty and stupid play combo (i.e., West Virginia's opening drive of the Pinstripe Bowl) This NEEDS to stop. Especially if Syracuse is going to attempt to be either a giant or a giant killer in the ACC.
There are definitely other issues, but those are the most glaring. I think QB is the biggest. Looking back, the best thing for fans about that winter of '96 was knowing they had McNabb for three more years. A superstar QB is everything. Imagine if Nassib had eligibility? But, still, there are reasons to think things will be different.
- Doug Marrone - He's proven to be exactly what Syracuse needed. Wait...there's something coming in on him. Let's come back to Marrone.
- Running Game - What's a good cure for a questionable QB? A solid running attack, and Syracuse should be stacked in 2013. Jerome Smith (who rushed for over 1,000 yards this season and emerged as a star) and Prince Tyson-Gulley (Pinstripe Bowl MVP) will be back. Thunder and Lightning and then some should be in for a huge season, with or without Pugh helping lead the way.
- Secondary - Ri'Shard Anderson, Keon Lyn, and Bradon Reddish, all key in helping SU go from 1-3 to 8-5, are all back next season. Huge for a defense that loves to pressure the QB -- meaning all three will be the last line of defense, literally, again. Of course, safety will be an issue #Shamarko Thomas!
- Defense - Actually, the entire defense should be loaded next season. Maybe not exactly loaded with superstars, but due to the rotations Scott Shafer plays, the Orange have a ton of returning depth. Again, returning players means experience and knowledge of the system. These are good things.
The program is in the right direction and it's very likely SU will walk into the ACC and be a notch or two below the Bigs. Competitive and fun to watch with real expectation and hope. Music to Orange fans ears. The only way things change is if Marrone somehow, someway, leaves Syracuse. Otherwise, life is good for SU football. Right? What's that?...OH DEAR GOD, NO!