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Moral victories are in the eye of the beholder

In college football perceptions, change quickly.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Down in Baton Rouge last weekend, the Syracuse Orange mounted a thrilling comeback to come within two points of the vaunted LSU Tigers on the road. While SU ultimately fell 35-26, there was a feeling that it was a moral victory. We shouldn’t have beaten LSU on the road, so coming close to doing so was victory enough.

I was in the stands, and I believed it. Nearly every fan around me believed it, as did virtually everyone on Twitter following the contest.

On Sunday, Andy wrote here that while the close loss was nice, the moral victory only mattered if Syracuse parlayed that into a strong outing against NC State. That happened, to an extent. But again, not for a full game.

There was also the issue we hadn’t accounted for: LSU fell to Troy at home. The Sun Belt’s Trojans pulled off what Syracuse couldn’t just a week earlier with what’s perceived as more talent.

So where does that leave us now?

In a lot of ways, we’re back at square one. The LSU moral victory is negated by Troy being able to beat them at home. NC State is only a moral victory if you squint hard enough. And even then, it’s more of yet another instance where Syracuse let mistakes derail what could’ve been a statement victory. SU lost by eight at the Wolfpack on Saturday. But actively took points off the board by way of mental errors.

(the referees also played a role with some questionable calls/no-calls against SU, but that’s a topic for another post)

This isn’t to say the team didn’t try hard, or doesn’t deserve praise for a second straight second half comeback. But after the LSU game, Orange players even said themselves that they didn’t care about moral victories.

Because it ends up that moral victories don’t count for anything, and the perception of them can turn on a dime. Staying within 10 of an SEC foe on the road sounds like an accomplishment until that same team needs a comeback of their own to keep it to single-digits against a Sun Belt team.

NCAA Football: Troy at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

THIS is why you don’t schedule losses. And it’s why the Scott Shafer era was so flawed from an optics perspective. Back then, 10-point losses to LSU and Clemson were reasonable justifications (for many) to keep Shafer as head coach. Moral victories were the currency that regime dealt in, and it ultimately led to its downfall.

Dino Babers doesn’t buy that sort of thing, and neither do his players. But a fan base looking for reasons to be hopeful does, and that’s how we get a very restless group at 2-3, staring down the barrel of yet another bowl-less season with a difficult schedule ahead.

Losing by single-digits on the road to LSU and NC State are not moral victories. But they do provide signs of progress; signs that the proverbial cake Dino’s baking is getting warmer. There are still imperfections, and that’s how we get actual losses on the board. Just looking at the scores from last year to this year show we’re moving toward the finished product, though.

Until this thing’s done, it’s going to be tempting to claim moral victories each week. To try and sneak a taste at the batter, to borrow from Dino’s cake analogy once again. Patience is tough, and it’s tougher when you’ve been waiting for more than a decade. For now, the small, week-to-week positives will have to hold us over. Those moral victories need to be seen for what they are (losses) until they turn into actual wins.