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Football computers are starting to believe: Syracuse upset of Clemson changes the game

Syracuse entered the Clemson game with about a 16% of finishing the year with six wins or more. After beating the Tigers? The likelihood is over 50%.

Pittsburgh v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Going into the Clemson game, Syracuse had around an 84% chance of finishing with fewer than six wins, the remaining half-dozen games on the slate featuring only two dates — home to Wake Forest and Boston College — in which the Orange maintained a blended win probability of over 35%. (These two games were, incidentally, the only matchups in which S&P, Sagarin, and Massey anticipated a spread of seven points or fewer, either in favor or against the Orange.) After dropping the defending national champions in the Dome, however, Syracuse’s profile has dramatically changed: Going from a ceiling that expected five wins, the Orange are now hovering close to six expected triumphs with about one-and-a-half victories anticipated to inure to Syracuse in its final three games.

Superficially, this doesn’t appear significant — “We beat Clemson! Why can’t we beat everybody?!” — but it does offer something important: The most likely record for Syracuse, at this stage in the season after overcoming an outlier loss to Middle Tennessee and creating an eccentric victory over Clemson, puts the Orange into a postseason bowl game. To repeat: Due to college football’s ridiculous win standard for bowl eligibility (a standard that cares not about actual quality), Syracuse does not need to perilously reach for six wins, even with its absolutely terrifying strength of schedule this year.

Miami and Florida State are struggles, but there are high hopes against Wake Forest, Louisville, and Boston College

Miami and Florida State haven’t looked like unstoppable football tanks this year, but both are standing as notable opposing forces to the Orange. A blended analysis among the three football computers considered — S&P, Massey, and Sagarin — install Syracuse as 17- and 13-point underdogs, respectively, with win probabilities hovering at or just below 20% for each date. If you squint real hard you could probably tease those lines down to single digits, but it’s difficult — even with the Seminoles’ issues this year and Miami’s penchant for doing just enough — to get the line to a touchdown, which keeps the Orange’s win probability under 40% or so. That doesn’t mean that Syracuse can’t surprise and pull another upset (or two); it just means that the likelihood of doing so is pronounced and going 1-1 in those two games, at least as of today, is just about 30%.

The results of those games notwithstanding, the crux of Syracuse’s season turns on its efforts in its final three games: Home offerings against Wake Forest and Boston College and a potentially fruitful trip to Louisville the weekend prior to Thanksgiving. This is where Syracuse — potentially riding a wave built on Dino Babers’ prescience of competence — can make its money: As it stands currently, the Orange is expected to earn 1.4 wins from this three-pack of dates, standing as a solid favorite against the Eagles and a toss-up play, in different degrees, against Wake Forest and Louisville. These opportunities carry massive weight in whether the Orange can propel itself into a December exhibition and clearing out misfortune in those games is the key to giving Syracuse’s seniors the send off they so desperately deserve.

There’s around a 45% chance, right now, that Syracuse cleans up at least two wins in that stretch and about a 42% chance that the Orange captures only one victory. This is where the hard cash is: Pocketing two wins in Syracuse’s final three, while not as sexy as toppling the Hurricanes or Seminoles, puts the Orange past the final hurdle. All three games are manageable and the odds are enticing as they do not require Syracuse to become an unstoppable machine (even though it would be fun to see the Orange salt the earth it passes). There is more than a reasonable shot for all of this to happen, and it’s all because the Orange totally changed its outlook by stumping Clemson on a Friday night.

Why the switch? Syracuse dented the death stretch

The path prior to the Clemson freak out was egregious — having to navigate the Tigers, Hurricanes, and Seminoles was asking a lot, especially in the context of where those teams were expected to be relative to Syracuse’s expected output. The window was narrow, even if the Orange was expected to corral somewhere in the range of four to five wins when the final buzzer sounded on the season.

It’s a different game now that Syracuse has taken a bite out of the hardest portion of its schedule. Where there was a highly likely loss — none of these football computers offered better than a 17% win probability against the Tigers — there is now a concrete win, and the paradigm has shifted. It’s more likely than not that the Orange can break through and capture six wins, an incredible feat considering all the factors that Syracuse faced in the preseason and before kickoff against one of the ACC’s best teams.