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Finding The Tipping Point

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Reader Cody, who has become my own personal Syracuse sports newswire, let me know about a topic in SI's Stewart Mandel's mailbag a few weeks back about "program-changing losses." For example, the 2004 Purdue loss to Wisconsin seemingly sent that program from the top ten to the Big 10 basement. Even if that loss wasn't directly responsible, it represented a tipping point for which all the bad things that followed could be traced to.

Got me thinking, of course, what was the loss that SU suffered that ultimately tipped us away from being a quality football program and sent us down this accelerated spiral into Duke Country?

The most obvious choice has to be the 2004 Champs Sports Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. All the ingredients are there. Even at 51-14, the score was not indicative of the game in which Syracuse barely even resembled a cohesive team. Pasqualoni was already a lame duck even if he had a semi-vote of confidence at the time. The problem with labeling this game as the tipper is that the program had already slide into mediocrity by this time. The Orange were 6-6 for the 2nd straight year and expectations had been lowered to the point where this was a somewhat realistic finish for Syracuse. So we have to look back even further...

There's the 24-7 loss to Rutgers in 2003, a game which I attended. SU was coming off a 4-8 season but they had still manhandled Rutgers 45-14. It was our one saving grace..."at least we're not as bad as those guys." I went to the game and I distinctly remember the game for its blustery temperature and the God awful winds that would smack you in the face full blast. I was in the stands and the wind factor was extremely obvious to me. Not so much to Paul Pasqualoni, though. Syracuse botched not one but two kickoffs to Rutgers. That means that Rutgers kicked off to an unprepared Syracuse and recovered the ball, and then, rather than learn from the situation, Syracuse allowed it to happen again. It was a disaster. Like watching the Raiders in the Super Bowl against Tampa Bay, knowing full-well that their plan wasn't going to work yet unable to deviate from that plan for whatever reason. And we know that loss was certainly a tipping point for the Raiders. Perhaps also so for the Orange, who have only beaten Rutgers once since.

But if you're going to talk about rivalry-changing losses, surely the 16-17 loss to Temple in 2002 has to be noted. For as long as they were together in the Big East, Syracuse had never lost to the
Owls. In fact, from 1992 to 2001, the Orange never scored less than 27 against them and broke the 40-point mark four times, including the previous season. The Orange might have gone 4-8 in 2002 but no one expected to lose to the laughing stock of the conference, a team that would soon be booted out in a couple years. And yet, there it was for all to see. The Orange led 10-3 going into the fourth quarter but soon found themselves down 17-10 after giving up two bombs. With time ticking off the clock the Orange finally got back on the board and pulled within one point. And then it happened...kicker Collin Barber missed the extra point. And in gut-wrenching fashion, Temple beat Syracuse for the first time in Big East play. And certainly the Orange have never been the same.

But the Orange were already a bad team that season, how did they get that way? Especially considering they were coming off a 10-3 season? Perhaps the Orange's 59-0 loss to Miami that year said more about the future of the Orange than the 10 wins ever could. No matter what the state of SU football, there was never any better measuring stick for the program than their November match-up with Miami. The Orange only beat the Hurricanes twice in the Big East ('97 and '98) so it's tough to call it a rivalry, but if Miami was the big brother who became a famous surgeon and married a smoking-hot model, SU was always the little brother with a 2.5 GPA who dreamed of becoming just like him but could never quite pull it off. Never was that more evident than 2001 when the 2nd ranked Hurricanes put the red hot Orange back in their place and put to rest any doubts of the pecking order in the Big East. Perhaps if the Orange had played a bit more competitively in front of a national audience that night, that season would have been a catalyst instead of an anomaly.

Still, this is forgetting about the 2000 season in which the Orange went 6-6 and the 1999 season when the Orange went 7-5, losing in four of their last six games. The slide into mediocrity had already begun. Maybe, just maybe, the season that we remember as being one of the best ever in SU history is also where we can find the loss that tipped things in the wrong direction.

1998. The Orange finish the season 8-4, win the Big East and play in the Orange Bowl. On paper, that's a success. But if you really remember what could have been in 1998, you'll know that 8-4 was in many ways an extremely disappointing exercise in "coulda woulda shoulda." The blowout loss to Florida in the Orange Bowl was how it ended, but maybe you need to look at how it started.

The 34-33 loss to Tennessee has been well documented here and elsewhere. Quite simply, the Orange were thisclose to beating the eventual National Champion in a fantastically-played game. But the fact is, they didn't. Sketchy pass interference call or not, it was an L for a Syracuse team that was in a position to make major headway into the top ten. Couple a win in this game with the win the following week at Michigan and Syracuse likely would have been a top five team. That doesn't mean they would have beaten NC State and West Virginia en route to playing for the national title could have.

And what about that NC State loss? So we lost to Tennessee...fine. It was still a close game and that would have been kept in mind. But we DID go to Michigan and beat them the following week. And we followed that up with a 70-14 decimation of Rutgers. 2-1 with that schedule, the Orange still could have written their own ticket. Then the #11 Orange went to NC State and the bottom dropped out. The Orange didn't lose, they got crushed. And it happened on national TV for all to see. With that loss, the Orange dropped out of the national title discussion for good. They would then lose to West Virginia and need a last-second play to beat Virginia Tech (a great game, no doubt) en route to a Big East title. Then, the Orange Bowl butt-whooping by Florida.

Do those games turn out differently if we win that NC State game? No idea. But I feel like that single loss turned changed the entire complexion of that season. All of a sudden we went from an #11-ranked national title contender to courtesy Orange Bowl participant. The team did accomplish some decent things but failed to meet the expectations by a mile. The Orange haven't been a part of the national discussion since. They've won more games in a season but they've never put a team on the field quite as loaded. They spent almost a decade unable to find a successor to Donovan McNabb. Recruiting dried up. Coach P's armor faded. The program descended into the middle of the pack almost instantly.

I know a lot of people will point to the Tennessee loss as the one that changed the game for SU but I'm going with the NC State loss. It not only changed the outlook of an entire season but because of that change, the program was never the same. It was the catalyst for everything that followed. Of course, there's no proof or definitive reasoning to put behind this. It's just a gut feeling. But if you look for a tipping point as to why Syracuse football is the way it is, I think you'll be hard-pressed to find a better example.