In their postgame press conferences Saturday, neither Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer nor middle linebacker Zaire Franklin wanted to entertain the idea that SU's 34-24 loss to LSU could serve as a moral victory. Franklin said he's not a "moral victory type of person." Shafer, meanwhile, seemed genuinely disappointed in the game's result.
"We could have played a lot better," he said. "We left a lot of plays on the football field. We were good enough to beat this team. This is a very good football team. We can beat them."
Those are completely fair stances for Franklin and Shafer to take. They were right to feel they could've won a game in which they trailed by only seven in the fourth quarter. And generally speaking, the concept of moral victories is kind of a silly one, especially for the Orange, who need six wins to become bowl eligible -- not five plus a loss that felt like a win.
Still, though, here are the facts: As a 24-point underdog, the Orange went toe-to-toe with LSU for the better part of four quarters Saturday. They did it without Eric Dungey at quarterback and with Zack Mahoney, who, as we all know by now, is a sophomore walk-on transfer by way of College of DuPage who was recently SU's fifth-string quarterback. Hell, Shafer struggled to remember Mahoney's name in the spring, which is all you really need to know to understand how bizarre it is that he started yesterday.
That's not to say SU would've won had Dungey played. Making that argument means dealing entirely in a hypothetical, and I'm not quite ready to do that. There's just no way to know how the game would've changed with him in it. Dungey looked good against Central Michigan and Wake Forest, but to say he would have played much better than Mahoney did against LSU is a dangerous assumption to make.
But the point still stands: Syracuse played the country's No. 8 team very tough with a fifth-stringer who was recruited only by FCS colleges out of high school. And beyond that, the Orange showed a lot of positive things. The special teams, led by Riley Dixon and Brisly Estime, were fantastic. The front seven was wreaking havoc throughout the day and finished with seven tackles for loss. And the defense held LSU to only 3-of-10 on third-down conversions. Clearly, that's a lot to like.
On top of that, everything about the game was enjoyable. The Carrier Dome was packed and loud. Leading up to the game, the quad was full of fans and there were tailgaters everywhere. It felt like real college football, something you don't often get to say about Syracuse home games. There was a certain buzz and excitement that isn't typical for football here, and it only got better as the game stayed close.
None of it means Syracuse is suddenly going to win eight or nine games now. It doesn't mean the games against Florida State or Clemson will be as competitive. Things change very often in college football. After SU nearly lost to Central Michigan last week, it felt to some fans like the sky was falling. Taking too much away from one game is never a smart thing to do. It's simply too small of a sample size. Take Ohio State, for example. The Buckeyes struggled to get by Northern Illinois last week. Is Ohio State worse than we thought? Is Northern Illinois better than we thought? Probably not and probably not; it was just one game and it's important not to overreact.
Saturday's game also shouldn't serve as proof that Syracuse should schedule more teams on LSU's level in the future. You just can't convince me that 3-1 with a close loss to LSU is somehow better than 4-0 with another win against a team on par with Central Michigan. Not when all the evidence says that scheduling top-tier teams is a bad idea for programs like Syracuse. And if the Orange go on to finish 5-7 this season -- which, don't kid yourself, is still entirely on the table -- then this game and the idea to schedule it looks bad.
But for now, it looks good. Really good. Yesterday was fun, as Shafer said in his press conference. At least in the short-term, the day was a win for Syracuse, even if the team lost. A moral victory, you might call it.