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How to Save Syracuse Football in Three Seasons, Part I: What Doesn't Work

In part one of our three-part series on how to make the Syracuse football program relevant again, we deep-dive into the ways that we're told work but clearly don't.

Brett Carlsen

Part I - What Doesn't Work (Tuesday)

Part II - What May Work (Wednesday)

Part III - What Will Work (Thursday)

In a way, it's perfect that the Duke Blue Devils were the ones to officially eliminate us from bowl contention in early November.

The nationally-ranked Duke Blue Devils. The 8-1 Duke Blue Devils. The relevant Duke Blue Devils.

You don't even have to be a Syracuse Orange fan of a certain age to feel like you're living in some kind of bizarro universe where Duke is a nationally-relevant football program and Syracuse is guaranteed to finish with a losing record before they're even halfway through November.

Duke, and our upcoming opponent Boston College, represent two stages of a football experience that we have longed for at Syracuse.

The first stage, which the Boston College Eagles are in the midst of, is becoming not only a consistently-winning program but competing with the programs that have heretofore dominated them. The Eagles played FSU and Clemson tough last year and have been able to hold their own against most comers so far again this season. Even if they don't win, they've rarely embarrassed themselves.

The second stage is relevancy. Somehow, beyond all history and logic, Duke has managed to accomplish that. They played for the ACC Championship last year and they'll probably do it again this year. While you can argue the merits of their record and ranking, it's still their record and it's still their ranking. Plus, as you'll see, ten years from now, no one will remember who they played, only that they won ten games.

And so, as the Orange take a 3-7 record into the final bye week and stare down two meaningless games against the Pittsburgh Panthers and BC Eagles, Syracuse fans wonder...when will that be us?

It's a question we've been asking for almost the entire 21st century. An oft-forgotten 10-win 2001 campaign aside, Syracuse football has struggled to win consistently in what might one day be known as The Post-McNabb Diaspora.

No doubt, there have been good seasons. 2010's surprising 8-5 run was the dawning of a new era while 2012's 8-5 season included wins over SEC and B12 teams. Both seasons ended with bowl victories.

The problem, of course, is how things went afterward. 2010 was followed up by a 5-7 campaign that ended on a five-game losing streak. 2013 ended with a bowl victory but the program took a step back in the win department. A year later, we're taking a giant leap back.

Maybe we'll get back to 6-6 next season. Possibly 7-5. But after you expect SU to do better? Or is it more likely that they'll go in the opposite direction and end up back here?

Consistency eludes us and that's what frustrates so many Orange fans. That's why cries for Scott Shafer to be fired have bubbled up. Not simply because SU is headed in the wrong direction, but that we've been down this road so many times, we'd do just about anything to avoid it.

The only thing that sounds more frustrating then another losing season is another rebuilding process.

Enough already.

To those who would say this is Syracuse Football's lot, I would say "balderdash!" or perhaps "malarkey!" or some other kind of old-timey outburst. People love to say that SU hasn't been good since Ernie Davis was here but it's simply not true. Between 1987 and 1998, Syracuse was among the best football programs in the nation. That era began with an undefeated season and ended with Donovan McNabb leading us to our second "BCS" bowl in three years. It included seven seasons in which SU won at least nine games and four in which we won at least ten. We went to ten bowls and appeared in the final polls nine times.

Yes, things have changed. But not so much that what SU accomplished during that time couldn't be repeated. No one has any delusions of Syracuse competing with Alabama and Oregon for National Titles year in and year out. Hell, we're not even saying Syracuse should be competing for the ACC title every season. But we should be a part of the conversation. There's no reason we can't be.

It's time to figure out how to do that and how to do it fast. That's the mission I've tasked myself with and I believe I've figured out the answer.

Like a Republican arguing against climate change, I'll go on the record that I'm not a scientist. I come at this as a simple college football fan who has spent 20 or so years watching, studying and caring about the sport. This is me telling, not spelling, so to speak. Still, I'm reasonably sure based on what I know and what I've seen that my methods are sound and worthy enough for Syracuse to employ.

But first, if we're going to figure out the thing or things that Syracuse needs to focus on in order to become a relevant football program, we need to get some things straight:

1. We're looking for causes, not effects. "We need to recruit more four- and five-star players" does not count because that's an effect. That's something that happens BECAUSE of the changes we make. We can't magically make SEC-quality recruits turn our way. There is no magic here.

2. We're thinking short-term. No ten-year plans. No five-year plans. How can we make changes that will turn Syracuse into a better program by the time the current freshman are seniors? We don't have the patience for anything longer. Plus, Scott Shafer doesn't have that kind of time either.

With those rules in place, let's look at the things that we've been told, for some time now, are the keys to building a relevant football program but clearly are not working. Cause if they did work, we'd be 7-3, not 3-7.

Wacky Uniforms

Separating personal opinions about the current uniform craze, and separating your ideas about the fact that a team called the Orange doesn't wear a whole lot of orange, let's talk about the point that wearing these uniforms is supposed to give Syracuse some kind of edge, be it recruiting or otherwise.

DOC Gross talked about Syracuse's relationship with Nike back in April. He told Brent Axe that the relationship and the introduction of new uniforms (a couple years after introducing then-new uniforms) was due to Nike's appreciation that Syracuse was a program on the rise.

Read that correctly. It's about Nike seeing something in Syracuse, not the other way around. That informs everything about the uniform craze.

If Syracuse were the only program trotting out these kinds of uniforms, it would probably go a long way toward making us relevant. We'd stand out. People would talk about our looks and designs. We'd be trendsetters.

Here's the problem...we're the opposite of that. We're followers. We're years behind Maryland, let alone Oregon. The uniform craze has gotten so saturated, the way to stand out is to where a generic uniform, like, say, what Duke wore this past weekend. Duke's Colts-Lite look actually made an impact because it was so...traditional. So...boring. So boring that it wasn't boring.

It was refreshing.

And it also reminds you that Duke didn't need crazy uniforms to win ten games last season or eight so far this year. Alabama and Auburn didn't need crazy uniforms to win National Titles, either.

There's no denying that the uniforms stand out to 16- and 17-year-olds. But clearly we don't give those kids enough credit because while they might be enamored by Syracuse's quirky grey uniforms, they're still committing to Penn State and Boston College and other schools that have boring-ass uniforms instead of us.

Because when it comes down to it, uniforms are a neat bonus, but they are insignificant to the value of a football program. A lot of people would love to convince you the reason Oregon is one of the top programs in the nation right now is because of the crazy uniforms, but anyone with a brain knows it's because of the money Phil Knight pumped into the program and how it was used. The facilities. The coaches. The recruiting.

Uniforms are the laser pointers meant to distract you. They don't provide anything of value.

Here's what UniWatch's Paul Lukas had to say about the recruiting impact of uniforms on the day when he became my spirit animal...

The only article I saw that really investigated it came out, I think, last August. They tried to find out how much it really impacts recruiting. The answer was not much. It's not much more than, maybe, a tiebreaker at best. It's not really a big secret that it's far more important if you have a good program, if there's a good coach, if you're going to win. Whenever I hear that, I think, Alabama doesn't have a problem recruiting, Penn State doesn't have a problem recruiting. What you're really saying is we're trying to attract 17 and 18-year-olds with shiny objects.

Nationally-Televised Games versus Nationally-Relevant Programs

DOC Gross and Co. love to tout the number of games Syracuse plays in front of national audiences against big-time non-conference opponents. We hear about how they're good for awareness, relevancy and showcasing SU football to the masses.

Here's what the masses have seen when they watch Syracuse play those teams in recent years...

Washington 42 - Syracuse 12
Iowa 35 - Syracuse 0

Penn State 55 - Syracuse 13
Syracuse 24 - Notre Dame 23

Penn State 28 - Syracuse 9

Washington 41 - Syracuse 20

USC 38 - Syracuse 17

USC 42 - Syracuse 29

Penn State 23 - Syracuse 17

Notre Dame 31 - Syracuse 15

We'll come back to this in part three but I think we can all agree that this strategy is terrible. If simply scheduling elite non-conference opponents was the kind of thing that builds a program, we'd be chocked full of the same recruits that Penn State, USC and Notre Dame are getting by now.

Simply scheduling these teams has done nothing but put Syracuse in the position of losing in front of national audiences so that the first thing people think of when they think of SU is that time they watched them lose.

DOC is right about one thing. We're raising awareness about Syracuse Football. Awareness that we're not very good.

Looking forward to that LSU series yet?

MetLife Homes Games

Do you know why you don't understand the importance of the MetLife games? Because you're a moron that doesn't understand how the world works, you un-nuanced imbecile.

"Usually when there's a disconnect it's because there's not enough information and data out there to support what we're doing. If someone takes a subjective opinion and puts that out publicly you can turn folks easily ... A lot of the intricacies it would be difficult for you to understand if you weren't looking at the myriad of data and input and stakeholders from student-athletes to coaches to keeping the doors open to compete nationally with the big boys."

Between not understanding how this works and not understanding how #Brand works, Syracuse fans don't understand a lot of things. So shut up, you dum-dums.

You know all about the MetLife thing so I'm just gonna give you the TL;DR version.

2009: Syracuse signs a deal to play "home games" against USC and Notre Dame at MetLife Stadium starting in 2012.

2010: Syracuse adds a 2013 game against Penn State to the MetLife schedule.

2011: Syracuse and MetLife sign a 20-year agreement that gives SU 14 total games in the stadium.

2012: Syracuse loses to USC, 42-29, in front of 39,507 fans (less than 50% capacity)

2013: Syracuse loses to Penn State, 23-17, in front of 61,202

2014: Headed into Notre Dame game, Joe Giansante touts how important, brand-wise and finance-wise, the series is to Syracuse. Multiple times someone from Syracuse talks about how it's the best neutral site deal any school has ever negotiated.

2014: Syracuse loses to Notre Dame, 31-15, in front of decidedly pro-Irish crowd of 75,614.

2014: The weekend of the Notre Dame game, it's announced that the remainder of the MetLife deal has been put on hold (Remember, this is literally days after we've been told by Syracuse people how important the series is to Syracuse).

2014: It's announced that Syracuse and Notre Dame will play at MetLife one more time in 2016. After that, barring a change of venue for an FSU home game or another Notre Dame game down the road, SU probably won't play here again for a long time.

So really, what are the learnings of the MetLife series?

1. The deal, which was harped on for being "the best neutral-site deal ever signed," was probably a little too good for Syracuse's sake. The Orange made promises they couldn't keep (attendance, national relevance) and MetLife realized it just wasn't worth the money. If you sign a deal that one side thinks is great and the other side thinks sucks, does that still make it a great deal?

2. The recruiting wins of the deal remain spotty. Yes, Syracuse brought many recruits to these games but how many of those recruits actually came to SU because of it? The recent rise in quality of recruit is due more to the ACC move than MetLife.

The 2014 Class included two recruits from NY (which includes Wayne Williams, a holdover from a previous class) and one from NJ. What happened to all of those other guys who went to the MetLife games? The 2015 Class includes two NY recruits and two NJ recruits. Would those numbers be any different without MetLife games? It's all guesswork but the difference appears to be negligible.

3. The attendance of these games is entirely reliant on the opponent. Hence why the Penn State attendance was better than the USC one and why the Notre Dame attendance trumped them all. It's the only reason MetLife would want another go at SU vs. ND. They know they're going to get the Irish fans. Any Syracuse fans who show up are a bonus. SU can harp how much of a "home game" this is all they want but the only way this game works is if the opponent draws way more fans than we do.

4. It remains a showcase to the nation of Syracuse losing. Three games, three losses. It gets tough after a while for a local market to get hyped up for a game they already know the outcome of.

5. The #Brand Factor. As Joe Giansante likes to remind us peons who don't understand #Brand, Syracuse got commercial time during Dancing With The Stars because of the MetLife game. Do you know how important that is? DO YOU???

Not nearly as important as SU Athletics seem to think it is.

I worked in the film business as a PR person for a movie studio for four years, followed by six years working in various PR/online media roles. So trust me when I say that I understand how branding and publicity work. If you think college athletics are driven by image and money, the movie industry makes it look like Little League.

I worked on tons of different movie campaigns. Theatrical releases. DVD releases. Big budget releases. Arthouse releases. You name it, I worked on it. I worked on campaigns that include multi-million dollar ad buys and cross-country media tours and publicity onslaughts that lasted for weeks. And sometimes, hell, most-times, in spite of all of those things, the movie bombed.

How can that be? How can a movie tank after millions of dollars of ad campaigns, publicity tours, public appearances, billboards, online ads and media awareness?

Because, Transformers movies aside, the public is usually smarter than you think they are and they can recognize when you're trying to sell them a turd. And the thing about turds is, you can't shine them, try as you might. And even if you're lucky enough to fool people the first time, you won't the second time.

When it's all said and done, you know who cares about ad placement and media branding? The publicity/media people who have to prove their value.

You know who doesn't care? Everyone else.

All of this isn't to say that the MetLife games don't have value. We make money off of them. More money than we'd make with a home game (apparently). So financially, it makes sense. As for the other perceived benefits of program improvement...those claims are as of yet deemed dubious, if not outright false.

Scheduling Tough Out of Conference

The only thing Syracuse Football people love to do more than schedule quality non-conference opponents is to talk about how good it is for Syracuse Football to schedule quality non-conference opponents.

"That's how my vision's been. I'm coming to college to play ball. I wanna play against the best people you can play," Gross said. "We're not trying to be suicidal, but we are trying to grow the program the right way. So going forward, strength of schedule is gonna be a consideration."

Here's the kind of schedules that kind of thinking has born:

2007: The No. 1 toughest (NCAA)

2008: 11th-toughest (Phil Steele)

2009: 30th-toughest (Phil Steele)

2012: 36th-toughest (NCAA), 2nd-toughest non-conference (Okla), The toughest non-conference (SN)

2013: 46th-toughest (Phil Steele), 3rd-toughest non-conference (FBSS)

2014: 5th-toughest so far (NCAA)

Missing from that list was 2010, when Syracuse played two FCS schools as well as Akron. Coincidentally or not, they finished 8-5 that year. Also missing is 2011, which featured three easy non-con games. The Orange ended up bombing out in Big East play and finishing 5-7 after a 5-2 start (3-1 OOC).

Scheduling strong is nothing new for SU. I wrote an article back in 2009 questioning why Syracuse schedules so tough out-of-conference. And remember, this was back when we were desperate to win more than four games. Here's the gist of my argument...

In the "be careful what you wish for" department, Syracuse is one of the few programs out there bucking the trend. SU has played more ranked non-conference opponents in the past five seasons than any other program in the nation (8). The thing is though, when you're USC, you can afford to schedule Ohio State and Texas and Notre Dame and Virginia every year because there's a good chance you're going to win. If you're Syracuse, there's a good chance you're going to lose...badly. Yeah, that's great that we played 8 ranked OOC teams. But guess what, we went 0-8 against them (I'm supposing).

...For a school like SU, playing a Kansas-State-calibur schedule versus playing the kind of schedule we have been could be the difference between sitting home again in December and playing in the International Bowl. It's not much but it's exposure and practice time that the program can't afford to continue missing out on. Besides, it's not like the bowls give a crap about your SOS. That's for national title contenders to worry about.

I'm not going to go into detail too much because we're going to tackle the non-conference schedule a lot deeper in a future section. But in the meantime, here's what I want you to do...

1. Go to College Football Data Warehouse

2. Research schools that have been traditionally bad but have built themselves up to varying stages of respectability, such as Kansas State, Duke, Rutgers (I know...) & Baylor.

3. Specifically, look at their non-conference schedules over the past two decades.

To be fair, you're going to find some good programs in there. Alabama, Stanford, Auburn, etc. But I think you're going to find that those types of opponents are anomalies. You're going to find a lot more directional schools and FCS opponents. A LOT more.

4. Look at DOC Gross's quote. That he wants to grow the program "the right way." So let me ask you a question as you sit here with a 3-7 Syracuse squad...if your choices are to keeping trying to grow "the right way" or to make it easier to go to bowl games every season, which way do you prefer?


In the words of Marcellus Wallace, "F*** pride."

Part II - What May Work tomorrow...