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Syracuse Football vs. Elite Teams – A History

Does Syracuse really have any chance to beat Florida State, the No. 2 team in the nation, on Saturday? Probably not. Just to be sure, I decided to search through the Syracuse record books for some context. We know that Syracuse shocked top-ranked Nebraska, but what else? What about against teams ranked No. 2? Against teams in the top ten?


The year was 1984.

Syracuse was coming off another mediocre season and an embarrassing 19-0 home loss to Rutgers. The Orange was facing the No. 1 team in the country – the same team that crushed Syracuse by 56 points the previous season. But the Orange, shockingly, defeated the top-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers 17-9 in front of a Dome crowd of 47,280. A New York Times writer called it "one of the biggest and most exciting upsets in recent college football history." A Syracuse blogger called it a program changer.

Nebraska was favored by 25 points. This week, the line is 38.5.

It’s unlikely Syracuse will upset second-ranked Florida State, but I wanted to get some historical background. I crunched some numbers from the Syracuse record book and here’s what I found:

Syracuse has a few huge upsets, but most of them came in the Carrier Dome. They were also led by coach Dick MacPherson. Unfortunately, neither of those will be true on Saturday.

Many of the franchise’s biggest wins came shortly after the opening of the Carrier Dome in 1980. Syracuse’s program-changing upset of Nebraska in 1984 stands out, but there were others, too. The Orange shocked No. 5 Florida in 1991, defeated No. 10 Penn State in 1987, and beat tied No. 6 Auburn in the 1987 Sugar Bowl.

As for other trends...

Against the Top Ten

Since 2000, Syracuse has played 19 games against teams ranked in the top ten. The Orange has gone 3-16 in those games. In 2001, Syracuse defeated the No. 5/4 Virginia Tech Hokies, 22-14, in Lane Stadium.  One year later, SU defeated the No. 8/7 Hokies, 50-42, in a wild triple-overtime game. Last season, the Orange upset ninth-ranked Louisville, 45-26. The last two games were in the Carrier Dome.  Seven of these 19 games were true road games. Syracuse lost all six-of-seven games, and by an average margin of 22.3 points.

Now 3-16 doesn’t sound very good, but keep in mind the top ten teams are ranked this high for a reason – they don’t lose very often. For context, this elite group finished the 2012 season with a composite record of 118-15. That’s an 88.7 winning percentage. So the fact that the Orange has won 15.8 percent of these games is actually on par for the course.

Against Number Two

Syracuse has even less success when playing the second-ranked team in the country. Dating back to 1955, SU is 0-12 in these games. (This includes a 2001 loss to Miami when the Hurricanes topped the AP Poll, but were second in USA Today.)

  • Most recent: 2012; a 42-29 loss to USC in MetLife Stadium
  • Closest: 22-14; a home loss versus Virginia Tech in 2000
  • Worst Blowout: 59-0; at Miami in 2001

Facing a Title Contender

I found that Syracuse had at least three relatively recent examples of facing a team on the verge of the national championship game. (If I missed some, share in the comments below.)

  • 2002: Miami defeated Syracuse 49-7 to improve to 11-0.
  • 2001: The Hurricanes shut out the Orange 59-0 to go to 9-0
  • 1992: Miami (Sensing a pattern?) edged by Syracuse 16-10. The Canes went to 10-0 with the win.

When Florida State is Top Ten

Florida State is 5-1 against Syracuse. Of these games, half came when the Seminoles were ranked in the top ten. The Orange lost all three.

  • 1991: Top-ranked FSU took down Syracuse 46-14.
  • 2004: No. 8 Florida State won a close 17-13 game.
  • 2005: Syracuse lost 38-14 to the Semioles, ranked No. 6/7.

So what does it all mean?

This century, the Orange average a 19.3 point loss to top ten opponents. It's not great, but at least it's better than the 38.5 point spread. Am I predicting an Orange upset? No. But Syracuse has played enough competitive games in these situations to believe there's, well, a slight chance.

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