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Syracuse football: Welp, progress is rarely linear

After an atrocious loss, we’re left searching for answers and a way forward.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Progress is rarely linear. Syracuse Orange football fans should know this, and yet we always fool ourselves into thinking.

After Coach Mac beat Nebraska in 1984, they’d make the Cherry Bowl the next year, then fall to 5-6 in 1986. They’d follow that up with an 11-0-1 season.

Paul Pasqualoni started hot with two 10-win seasons, then cooled, then picked back up with Donovan McNabb before cooling again and cashing in one more 10-win season anyway before being fired after 2004.

Doug Marrone went 8-5 in his second year, then 5-7 in his third. SU would bounce back to go 8-5 again in year four with a team that was the program’s best in a decade.

Scott Shafer went 7-6 in year one, then limped to 3-9 and then 4-8 in his final year.

You get the picture by now. Progress, or regression, doesn’t necessarily happen in the way we’d all like. You want to put your program on a track to lose big, then lose small, then win small, then win big. But it doesn’t happen like that for everyone.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - West Virginia v Syracuse Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Sometimes, you skip a step (see: Iowa State this year). Sometimes, you just never get to a certain point (see: Shafer). In the case of Doug Marrone, you’d have liked those numbers to be arranged with the 2010 and 2012 teams last, so the progress looked more orderly.

And so is the case as well with Dino Babers. With two games to go in year two, it’s tough to see what’s transpired and not be at least a little confused. Syracuse was tight with every opponent this year. The defense was better. Even if we went 4-8 in 2017, we could claim a win over Clemson and other tight games against more talented teams. You could say we’re a rising progr—

Wake Forest 64, Syracuse 43

Remove the garbage time touchdown for Wake Forest and it doesn’t hurt any less. Despite a season in which Syracuse looked resurgent, fun and impressive on defense, the bottom fell out against the Deacons and they channeled the team that gave up 76 points to Pitt last year.

John Wolford had his way with them. The traditional run game did too. Without Eric Dungey, the thought was that we’d struggle to score points. Instead, Zack Mahoney looked pretty great for much of the game (sans two interceptions) but the defense just couldn’t stop anyone, or anything, to save their lives.

Wake Forest v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

If this had happened in game one or two, you’d accept it as part of the process. Your mind would be annoyed, but it would make sense. “Syracuse’s defense was bad last year, so it makes sense that it will still be kind of bad this year.”

Instead, it comes today after nine straight games that at least looked improved. Defensive coordinator Brian Ward was up for the Broyles Award for the job he’d put in. He wasn’t going to win, but the committee’s likely questioning the inclusion in the first place.

What we have to remember now is that this game --this miserable excuse for a game, that is -- doesn’t mean we’ve made zero progress this year. In fact, the fact that we’re this aggravated and disappointed proves we’ve gotten much better.

But perhaps our expectations were still a bit too linear. A bit too focused on going from one checkpoint to the next, without any interruption or steps back.

To think that the Clemson game was the peak of what we could do was a flaw on all of our parts. The idea that we were “back” was one bandied about frequently, but had no merit. At that time, we were 4-3 with a loss to a G5 team. Now we’re 4-6 and I don’t really think this team’s changed at all. If you look at the attitudes of fans and even national media, though, you’d think we’ve fallen off a cliff.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

I’m guilty of it myself. Despite years of conditioning, I’d told myself things were different for Syracuse. That the Clemson game and close losses around it meant we were well on the road back. Dino Babers had managed a quick fix and we were a shooting star, ready to take over the college football world in a few years.

If I’m on the less positive end of the spectrum, I can only imagine the emotional roller coaster experienced by those with orange-colored glasses.

Even if this season finishes at 4-8, I think we can still see progress from 2017. It just might look different from what we’d expected a month ago. The defense’s problems might have just been allayed for weeks then popped up. Wake Forest might have had the perfect gameplan. We might have picked the wrong method of attack.

Whatever it is, it’s not the end of the upward momentum. It’s a bump in the road. We’ve seen another one of these already this year in the Middle Tennessee loss. There’s no question that Babers is getting a better product on the field. But you don’t just snap your fingers and arrive at the end.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse football, whether we like to admit it or not, has been stuck in a 15-year rut. There’s been fleeting success. And some nice moments in there. But our impact on the sport outside of CNY has been minimal. You can’t fix that overnight (or even in two years). Right now, Babers is still plugging some square pegs into round holes. That’s proven every week with Dungey, who’s not built for this offense’s intended design. You saw it with Mahoney today as the offense probably resembled the intent more closely (but still fell apart).

We should be upset over what happened vs. Wake. I’ve been furious for over an hour now, and that’s not likely to subside anytime soon. But it will have to, and give way to faith that this was a bump and nothing more. Unlike last year’s Pitt debacle, we still have two more games to play.

Just remember that win or lose, it’s not a referendum on our season or Dino Babers. Just a referendum on what we might have visualized for it -- his season, his job, etc. We have questions, and we should. Hopefully they’re answered in the form of wins. And if not, maybe that step comes next year.