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: Minnesota 23, Syracuse 20 (OT)
The real-life opener for the Doug Marrone era immediately showed Orange fans that this team was going to be more competitive and that Duke-basketball-player-turned-SU-quarterback Greg Paulus might actually have some talent. Unfortunately, that talent sometimes resulted in him trying to do to much, as was the case with his overtime interception to lock up this OT loss for Syracuse. (0-1) (0-0)
Game 2: Syracuse 37, Northwestern 34
Another real result treated Carrier Dome fans to the other side of the Greg Paulus coin: a 346-yard passing performance with two scores (plus another one rushing). He still wasn't without mistakes (one fumble and one interception), but Paulus also led the game-winning drive to make up for those earlier errors. (1-1) (0-0)
Game 3: Syracuse 41, Maine 24
It might've been a bit tougher than expected, but the Orange dispatched of the FCS Black Bears at the Dome with a strong second half effort. After finding themselves down 17-13 after the first 30 minutes, Syracuse buckled down on defense while also scoring 28 straight points on offense to reel in their second victory of the year. (2-1) (0-0)
Game 4: #9 Miami 37, Syracuse 24
The ACC opener does not go as planned for the Orange, who had looked to score a big upset at home against the highly-ranked Hurricanes. But four Greg Paulus turnovers will do that to you. After starting the game up 10-0, Syracuse was thoroughly dominated from there, with some garbage time points making things appear closer than they actually were. (2-2) (0-1)
Game 5: Duke 38, Syracuse 32
Duke QB Thaddeus Lewis shreds the Syracuse secondary for five touchdown passes as the Blue Devils score a key victory over their divisional rivals. While the Orange running game puts in a strong performance (190 yards), it's Paulus's errors (three picks) that once again derail the SU attack and bring about the tough road loss. (2-3) (0-2)
Game 6: Syracuse 27, Boston College 19
The previously 4-1 Eagles were shell-shocked early, as Syracuse started the game up 17-0 and never looked back. Greg Paulus's efficient, mistake-free play (26-for-37, 261 yards) was a welcome site for Dome fans in the contest, as were Delone Carter's 103 yards and two scores. To celebrate his first ACC win, Doug Marrone chugs a Gatorade and eats a bologna sandwich. (3-3) (1-2)
Game 7: #19 Georgia Tech 44, Syracuse 9
Georgia Tech and the triple-option put up 31 points in the first half and Syracuse simply never recovered down in Atlanta, en route to a blowout loss. Despite an edge in time of possession advantage and first-downs, the Orange could not contend with the Tech backs, who reeled off separate touchdown runs of 68, 85 and 59 yards. SU's redzone struggles also contributed, as the team was just 3-of-7 on trips inside the 20; all them field goals. (3-4) (1-3)
Game 8: North Carolina 20, Syracuse 17
Despite shutting out the Tar Heels for the first 38 minutes of the game, SU's own offense simply never came alive for the second straight game. Greg Paulus was once again full of mistakes (two interceptions), while he also threw a good-looking touchdown pass to Mike Williams with just 35 seconds remaining to make this one look a bit more respectable. Doug Marrone is still annoyed, but won't yank Paulus for backup Ryan Nassib just yet. (3-5) (1-4)
Game 9: Syracuse 28, Akron 14
SU does what they're supposed to do against a MAC team: win, in uneventful fashion. It's a nice bounce-back victory for the team after two straight losses, though there's still much left to be desired in the offense after showing glimmers of success early on in the season. (4-5) (1-4)
Game 10: Maryland 23, Syracuse 20
Another late collapse by the Orange (especially one against the hapless Terps) has fans beside themselves and calling for changes at the quarterback position. Syracuse led the entire game, but an ill-advised pass by Greg Paulus late in the fourth resulted in an interception for Maryland, followed by the game-winning score with just seconds remaining. SU's struggles in ACC play continue... (4-6) (1-5)
Game 11: Syracuse 29, NC State 10
Perhaps Greg Paulus does know how to respond to criticism? After a frenzied week of fans looking for the quarterback to be benched, the fifth-year senior made his final home game count with 331 passing yards and two scores. After what started as a tight game (SU was only up 14-10 at the half), It was Paulus who finally started executing in the red zone, effectively putting this one away by early in the fourth quarter. (5-6) (2-5)
Game 12: Syracuse 33, Virginia 9
The Orange are going bowling! Despite two turnovers from Greg Paulus, it's the defense that comes through in the clutch, with Phillip Thomas and Max Suter each returning an interception for a touchdown. On the game, the Syracuse D held the Hoos to just 252 yards and 16 first downs, frustrating quarterback Jameel Sewell throughout the contest. Doug Marrone takes a bath in Gatorade, and bologna sandwiches and Dove bars become the toughest items to find in the city of Syracuse. (6-6) (3-5)
Meineke Car Care Bowl: Pittsburgh 51, Syracuse 20
The day after Christmas is not a fun one for Syracuse, as the Orange get absolutely trounced by Pitt down in Charlotte. In Greg Paulus's final game, he tosses five maddening interceptions, while also managing to throw for 302 yards and two scores (typical Paulus game). The huge loss is a downer following an exciting, resurgent season for SU, but no one hears complaints from a fan base that's been begging for something resembling a competitive team in recent years. (6-7) (3-5)
Updated ACC Football Standings, 2009
1. Clemson (9-5) (6-2)
2. Boston College (8-5) (5-3)
3. Florida State (7-6) (4-4)
4. Wake Forest (5-7) (3-5)
5. NC State (5-7) (2-6)
6. Maryland (3-9) (2-6)
1. Georgia Tech (11-3) (7-1)
2. Miami (10-3) (6-2)
3. North Carolina (8-5) (4-4)
4. Duke (6-7) (3-5)
5. Syracuse (6-7) (3-5)
6. Virginia (3-9) (2-6)
The Doug Marrone era starts with all the fanfare and excitement fans could've asked for, except in this simulation, the Orange actually end up making a bowl game on top of it all. And what if SU hadn't choked away a couple of those close wins? Could they have actually been staring at an eight- or nine-win campaign? Sounds ridiculous, sure, but the fake Marrone did just win six games with mostly Gerg's players. Makes you remember why we liked this Doug guy so much to begin with.
Next up: Wes Johnson and the 2009-10 Syracuse Orange try to realize their destiny as national champs, sans Arinze Onuaku injury in the Big East Tournament.