Nearly every Syracuse Orange fan remembers the shenanigans of 2003 when the Orange, bags packed for the ACC, were replaced at the last minute by Virginia Tech, courtesy of then-Va. governor Mark Warner's insistence. The move would result in a decade-long run of success for the Hokies in their new home, while SU spent nearly 10 years struggling in the Big East.
But what if things had happened the other way? What if Jim Boeheim's complaints about the switch fell on deaf ears, and what if Warner's efforts to upgrade the Hokies were undone before he could extract them from the Big East? Would things have gone dramatically different for Syracuse in the ACC all this time?
With some help from sports simulation site WhatIfSports.com, we can take at least a speculative look at what might've been for Syracuse on a season-by-season basis. While these simulations won't build new recruiting classes or anything like that, we can take a look at where the Orange would've fallen overall, had they made the ACC switch earlier.
Please note that for our purposes here, SU's most lopsided non-conference losses each season have been dropped in favor of one or more in-conference game (depending on necessity). Additionally, each year will simply use Virginia Tech's in-conference slate, so as not to create a brand new scheduling matrix. SU will also compete in football's Coastal division (rather than the Atlantic division they've been placed in in real life), just as Virginia Tech did starting in their second ACC season (2005).
Game 1: Syracuse 29, Akron 3
Syracuse loses the turnover battle (three to zero) yet still runs away with this real-life game. Uneventful matchups against MAC teams are the only matchups the Orange should have against MAC teams, and this is a nice change of pace compared to the losses SU had suffered from lesser opponents in the past. (1-0) (0-0)
Game 2: Washington 41, Syracuse 20
The Orange didn't fare too well in their cross-country trip to Seattle, falling hard to what would end up being an average Huskies team. Despite starting and finishing strong, Syracuse just couldn't stop the Washington offense (scored 27 unanswered points after starting down 10-0) and the rout was on by the third quarter. It also helps when you've got a future first-round pick at quarterback, which UW did in Jake Locker, who threw for 289 yards and four scores in this one. (1-1) (0-0)
Game 3: Syracuse 38, Maine 14
In Syracuse's first home game of the year, QB Ryan Nassib ends up setting a school record with five touchdown passes, as the Orange simply dominate the FCS Black Bears. After finding themselves down 14-7 in the second, SU hit another gear on both offense and defense, scoring 31 unanswered points in the victory. (2-1) (0-0)
Game 4: Syracuse 42, Colgate 7
Two straight FCS games, two straight big victories for Syracuse, as they finish up September with three wins and just one loss (all real-life results). The old Central New York rivals Colgate and Syracuse are now thousands of miles apart on the college football landscape, and it showed here. Delone Carter was the star for the Orange, running for 172 yards and four TDs on just 14 carries. (3-1) (0-0)
Game 5: Boston College 38, Syracuse 33 (3OT)
Yes, this game happened in the real 2010 season, but while that contest was the Dome, this one was at Boston College. And despite the loss for Syracuse, we did still get an instant classic out of this one -- a three-overtime thriller capped by a big Alex Amidon touchdown for the Eagles. Ryan Nassib had another big game passing (281 yards), but mistakes plagued him again, and ultimately cost SU a chance at victory. (3-2) (0-1)
Game 6: #23 NC State 52, Syracuse 20
Syracuse was down 52-10 at one point in this one (in the third quarter!!), before scoring 10 points in the fourth to reduce some of the embarrassment. Russell Wilson threw for four touchdowns and ran for another, while Ryan Nassib was intercepted twice and sacked six times in a disappointing effort. Following a 3-1 start, things are beginning to look sour pretty quickly for the Orange. (3-3) (0-2)
Game 7: Syracuse 29, Wake Forest 10
Following a two-game slide, the Orange manage to bounce back against Wake Forest at home, where they've yet to lose this season. Ryan Nassib has another turnover-ridden game (three picks), but luckily Delone Carter picks up the slack, rushing for 147 yards and three scores. The defense also pitches in, with a safety, four sacks and two interceptions vs. freshman passer Tanner Price. (4-3) (1-2)
Game 8: Syracuse 34, Duke 26
Duke keeps it close throughout, but thanks to Delone Carter once again, Syracuse is able to pull out yet another home victory. The star running back's late score and two-point conversion put the Orange up for good with just 30 seconds left. SU's pass defense was deplorable from start to finish, letting Sean Renfree throw for 398 yards and three touchdowns -- the only saving grace being the Orange's nine sacks against him. (5-3) (2-2)
Game 9: Syracuse 35, Georgia Tech 21
SU's offense has a monster second quarter, scoring 25 points and virtually putting this contest away at halftime, much to the delight of the Carrier Dome crowd. Delone Carter scored another two touchdowns, while Ryan Nassib managed to play mistake-free football for the first time in weeks. Tech QB Joshua Nesbitt was terrorized all game by SU's front four, suffering a safety, while also throwing two picks. (6-3) (3-2)
Game 10: North Carolina 40, Syracuse 16
There goes the hot streak. Syracuse's road woes continue after dropping a big game against North Carolina; one which they were out of almost from the beginning. Even though they forced two turnovers (versus zero for UNC), SU's offense could never get things going -- struggling on third down (4-for-15) and turning it over on downs twice in the red zone. They'll have two more shots to become bowl eligible. (6-4) (3-3)
Game 11: #24 Miami 27, Syracuse 13
For the second straight week, the Orange offense goes completely stagnant, killing a solid effort from the defense, which did a nice job of pressuring Jacory Harris all game. Ryan Nassib was just 17-of-41 passing, and the team went just 3-for-19 on third down, electing to throw the ball far too often. After the contest, Doug Marrone just sort of shakes his head and walks out of the press conference. (6-5) (3-4)
Game 12: Syracuse 41, Virginia 30
Starting the game down 17-7, Syracuse had their backs against the wall. And yet, thanks to Ryan Nassib, they came out with flying colors. Nassib threw for 275 yards and four touchdowns (including two by Nick Provo) and SU won their sixth home game of the year to clinch bowl eligibility. With Doug Marrone disallowing Gatorade baths after games, Orange players douse their coach with a cooler of bologna late in the fourth quarter to celebrate the win. (7-5) (4-4)
Military Bowl: Syracuse 38, East Carolina 35
Down 35-13 late in the third quarter, Syracuse looked as if they were about to suffer their second straight disappointing bowl loss under Doug Marrone. And then the offense came alive. Cardiac 'Cuse struck again, scoring 25 unanswered points to close out the Military Bowl, stunning ECU and their purple-clad faithful. Ryan Nassib threw two scores in the final period -- one to Delone Carter, who ran for a TD as well -- and the Orange fittingly capped their up-and-down season with a stirring comeback. (8-5) (4-4)
Updated ACC Football Standings, 2009
1. NC State (10-3) (6-2)
2. Florida State (10-3) (6-2)
3. Maryland (9-4) (5-3)
4. Boston College (8-5) (5-3)
5. Clemson (6-7) (4-4)
6. Wake Forest (3-9) (1-7)
1. Miami (8-5) (6-2)
2. North Carolina (9-4) (5-3)
3. Syracuse (8-5) (4-4)
4. Georgia Tech (6-7) (4-4)
5. Duke (3-9) (1-7)
6. Virginia (4-8) (1-7)
So far, so good for the Marrone era. With two bowl bids, a 14-12 record and a promising young quarterback in Ryan Nassib, things couldn't be better for the Orange, who rebounded rather quickly from the depths of the Gerg era. Syracuse still isn't in the ACC's top tier, but here -- like in real life -- 2010 was a definitive step forward from being just another middling school, to potentially contending for a league championship, especially in the wide-open Coastal division.
Next Up: How does the 2010-11 team -- which always seemed to be a mystery to fans -- perform in the ACC? Can they avoid a disappointing upset in the tourney? And will that season's 18-0 start actually yield a much higher reward as they try and defend last year's magical national title run?