Dan and John touched on this during a recent podcast: What's a reasonable win-loss expectation for Syracuse this season?
The lunatic elite will always have its expectations set somewhere north of "WE'RE GOING TO BEAT CLEMSON ON THE MOON!" but those people aren't exactly the paragons of intelligence that you should listen to when it comes to performance expectations or, like, how you should hold a knife. The spectrum pole to that are the perfectly miserable, folks that believe that Syracuse should drop football for, like, modern dance or something. A balance between the two is where we should be shooting, but the question is this: What's the reasonable middle?
This is mind-bendingly hard for the Orange this season. Syracuse brings back a massive chunk of production, but the coaching staff -- and its philosophy -- has been overhauled. The Orange should be better in 2016 than 2015, but it's going to take time to get Dino Babers' vision put in place and the schedule is absolutely unrelenting. For every "If this goes right . . ." there's a "Yeah, but . . ." That's the problem: It feels like Syracuse should be better than 2015, but will it show up in the team's win-loss record?
It's probably reasonable to think that Syracuse will have a stronger effort this season compared to last, but it may not show up in a drastic way in the Orange's record. That belief seems to be illustrated in what football computers are projecting for Syracuse in 2016, pegging the Orange as improved over the spring and summer but saddled with a schedule that will make it a real hassle to write "BOWL GAME" all over December with permanent marker.
That's okay. Really! Babers has been tempering expectations for 2016 since he arrived in Syracuse, all but explicitly stating that people need to get their head checked if they have designs on seven or eight wins right out of the gate. A 5-7 campaign from the Orange -- the marker that football computers are setting -- only registers a one-win improvement over 2015, but against a schedule that's generally harder than what Syracuse faced a year ago, and considering a total reorganization of the team's pursuit, that's a reasonable target to shoot for.
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- 5-7 looks like the marker: That isn't an awful position to start the year, and a win or loss in either direction is probably within the zone of reasonable expectations. Facing a schedule that's above Syracuse's head is keeping the Orange under .500, and, really, being under .500 with this raging bitch of a slate isn't bad. The splits underlying the 5-7 mark are interesting:
- You want to see wins in the Dome? How does a 3-3 record make your face feel? Colgate is a slam dunk and Florida State will be a bludgeoning, but toss-up games against South Florida, Virginia Tech, and NC State are the games that will make or break Syracuse's home (and overall) record. Louisville is a manageable situation as a 'dog under the roof, but the key here, as always, is pulling out wins against teams that are expected to play you pretty square in your own building.
- The likelihood of stunning a top 25 team is pretty low, but it's not nonexistent: There may be a win out there -- Louisville, based on the machinations of football computing machines. Notre Dame at MetLife and Florida State at home hold low probabilities, and Clemson on the road in Death Valley is basically a non-starter. That leaves the Cardinals as the most likely 'dog bite. I have no idea if it would be more beneficial to face the Cardinals later in the season when Syracuse actually understands Babers' offense, but maybe there's something to getting Louisville in the Dome before the Cardinals know what Babers wants to do.
- 10 games against the top 75 and eight games against the top 50 are heavily impacting Syracuse's win-loss projection. The Orange are only expected to go 3-7 against the top 75 (with an average opponent rating of 35) and 2.5-5.5 (bring back the tie!) against the top 50 (with an average opponent rating of 27). Again, most of those games are ACC dates (Notre Dame and South Florida are the outliers), so it's not like Syracuse can run from those meetings. However, the margin for error here is small with Colgate necessitating a face destruction and the Orange needing to come correct against the Huskies on the road in what looks like a toss-up type of game. The meat of the schedule is populated with apex predators and that's going to push Syracuse's expected performance down.
- "But Babers did it before!": There has been some chatter about Syracuse potentially coming out of 2016 with a surprising record based on Babers' inaugural seasons at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green. In 2012, Babers lead the Panthers to a 7-5 record and a berth in the FCS playoffs; in 2014, Babers took the Falcons to a 8-6 mark and a win in the Camellia Bowl (whatever the hell that is) over South Alabama. The thing about a potential corollary happening for Syracuse is this: FCS is a completely different beast than FBS football -- especially Power 5 FBS football -- and Bowling Green played a whole slew of tin cans on the way to an 8-6 record in Babers' first year at the helm. That 2012 season for Bowling Green featured the Falcons facing a schedule ranked around 100th nationally in both the Massey Ratings and S&P+; despite a 3-9 campaign, the Orange finished well above the Falcons in both ratings metrics due to its output against a schedule ranked in the top 40. In 2016, Syracuse will face one of the most difficult schedules in the country -- FPI puts the slate in the top 10 in the nation -- and the opportunity to pad wins by slugging dopes in the mouth isn't exactly available for the Orange this year. Babers is in completely different circumstances, schedule-wise, at Syracuse compared to his initial forays as a head coach.
- On the schedule: This thing is a brutal, sadistic torture chamber. Based on the blended illustration above, Syracuse will face eight teams rated 50th or better, a full two-thirds of its schedule sitting in the top 40% of FBS. Six of those games are mandatory ACC games, but the fact remains that the Orange are facing a slate in which the vast majority of its opponents are above Syracuse's initial ceiling. Only two teams -- Connecticut and Wake Forest -- are under Syracuse's blended football computer rating, and both of those games are on the road in 2016. Ignoring the power inherent in Syracuse's schedule is a massive effort in demanding results without understanding impediments. 5-7 isn't just 5-7, and the biggest pile of monkey poo that Bill Parcells ever threw was that a team is what their record says it is.
- Path to Six Wins: The good news is that Syracuse is within reach of six wins and a potential bowl invitation. The bad news is that Syracuse needs to overachieve to get there (at least relative to initial projections). Throw out Notre Dame, Clemson, Florida State, and Pittsburgh as all four games, right now, seat the Orange with less than a 30% chance of victory. That leaves eight games for Syracuse to find six wins. Colgate is in the bag, Louisville bends toward a loss. Six games then stand as the means for five more victories: South Florida, Connecticut, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, Boston College, and NC State. All of those games assign Syracuse a 40-60% win probability (toss-ups), and splitting them only gets the Orange to four wins. The path emerges: Take two of the three road games -- Connecticut and Wake Forest -- and put them in Syracuse's bucket (not unreasonable given the win probabilities, despite the games being away from New York), and sweep the home games against South Florida, Virginia Tech, and NC State. That's the path -- Colgate, South Florida, Connecticut, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, NC State. (Let's not mention that there's a 3% chance of that actually happening.) Unless, of course, you think that Boston College is definitely a victory and only a pure-grade moron would think otherwise, in which case the path is totally different and I give up.