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The infinite Syracuse football road trip diary: The end

[waves from the other side] "I made it!"

Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Hoya Suxa attended 7 of Syracuse's 12 regular season football games this year. This is the last of his travelogues.

“I didn't used to be this stupid.”

Senior Season, Tom Perrotta

These diary entries generally evade any discussion of actual football. The reason for that is straightforward — the most interesting parts of game day often occur outside the three- to four-hours on the football field. Spending north of nine hours in a car most weekends, however, gives me a lot of time to quietly think about football stuff, to critically consider Syracuse’s football enterprise as the nothingness of Upstate New York blitzes by in the windshield.

Here are some thoughts — both broad and specific — that I want to share. How you choose to digest the following is your own business.


Two scenes to develop the general principle of guiding thought:

1. Syracuse at Florida State — 4th & 3 at FSU 4, 1:01 2Q, 21-14, FSU

Syracuse entered its date with Florida State as a four-point underdog to the host Seminoles, the Orange looking to steal a victory on the road despite facing a win probability, prior to kickoff, that hovered around 25% according to ESPN’s FPI model. While Florida State wasn’t in world-beating mode at that stage of the season — and wouldn’t rise to that level as the year wore on in Tallahassee — Syracuse wasn’t exactly on a level playing field with the ‘Noles: Despite dropping Clemson three weeks prior and hanging with Miami in Miami Gardens, Syracuse was still unlikely to experience a Gatorade bath at Doak Campbell Stadium based on the output of ESPN’s football computing machine.

This environment — one in which Syracuse needed to overplay its strength relative to Florida State — is an important aspect to understanding Babers’ conceptual approach to competing. Most Syracuse fans have been weened on the National Football League (not unlike most Northeast football fans), a league in which teams are, for the most part, competitively square. An environment of competitive tightness and compact win probabilities that are closer to toss-ups than ass beatings influences decision-making in important ways, those thought processes linked to beliefs pertaining to competitive balance. This experiential history with the NFL has influenced, in no small part, how Syracuse fans perceive relative strength and competitive tactics prior to kickoff, during the game, and after the final whistle, yet conceptualizing college football in the context of the NFL model is a misunderstanding of potentially dangerous proportion: Simply, these are two different games with two different sets of theory to create and promote competitiveness.

Babers — either overtly or covertly, consciously or unconsciously — values that difference and has applied progressive theoretical concepts to his approach, these ideas increasing Syracuse’s ability to compete. His efforts in fourth down theory, two-point theory, and pursuing maximization of expected points on a drive-by-drive basis has both (a) driven a sect of the Syracuse fanbase borderline bonkers trying to shoehorn their thinking into an entirely new (to them) paradigm, and (b) offered the promise that Babers is willing, capable, and committed to overcoming the myriad of obstacles that Syracuse faces to becoming a competitive concern in a host of different ways.

This is a difficult shift for many Syracuse fans to make, not only because it stabs, repeatedly, at sacred cows, but it also generates a different type of awareness: It’s not aggressive versus conservative, it’s rational versus irrational; it’s not rules of thumb, it’s dynamic decision making. There is going to be a discomfort with this, but once the realization is made that Babers is, in function, attempting to increase Syracuse’s competitiveness by exploiting inefficiencies — how many college coaches are fervently pursuing rational football decision making grounded in theoretical constructs and supportive data? — to level a competitive imbalance, it starts to become clear that the paradigm that Babers is working within offers benefits unattainable in stodgy football custom.

This is where the fourth down call against Florida State becomes important: At that moment in time, ESPN’s FPI assigned a 81.3% win probability to Florida State with the Seminoles holding a seven-point advantage on the scoreboard; the Seminoles would be receiving the ball at the start of the second half and Syracuse was in a position where it was expected, based on field position, down and distance, and time left on the clock, to generate greater than three points (remember: a first down, with time left on the clock, was still available to the Orange in the situation) while yielding immaterial opponent expected points on a change of possession based on (a) where Florida State would start an ensuing drive, and (b) the time left on the clock in the first half after the change of possession occurred (in whatever form).

A field goal, if made in that spot, would have raised the Orange’s win probability to around 26%, a small increase in triumph likelihood while still maintaining a possession deficit against an opponent favored via relative strength. A touchdown and extra point conversion would raise Syracuse’s win probability to approximately 40%, erasing the scoreboard deficit and eliminating the scoring possession gap. Entering the half empty left Syracuse at approximately a 20% win probability, not distant from its win likelihood if the Orange had converted a field goal or where Syracuse started the game.

Babers’ decision — one that went against the countenance of traditional football thinking — was a choice that was designed to (a) increase Syracuse’s odds of succeeding, (b) mitigate Florida State’s relative strength against the Orange, and (c) maximize the amount of points his team was generating rather than settling for an option that would not substantially improve his team’s position.

In the NFL this makes less sense as relative strength is muted, but in college football — where the need to address relative strength is a significant concern — the decision making is exploitative of an inefficiency. Babers pursued a higher level of competitiveness that set fire to a standardized way of thinking that many Syracuse fans ascribe to, and there is an opportunity there to see that how Babers pursues competitiveness is a developed, if not potentially weaponized, path to elevated heights. A philosophy of this degree attempts to level the playing field in that it removes the need to fight on an opponent’s plane — it adjusts imbalance via an exploitation, thereby adjusting leverage.

2. Syracuse at LSU — 1st & 10 at LSU 22, 5:40 4Q, 28-19, LSU

LSU is about as distant a cousin to Syracuse as you can imagine: The Tigers are loaded with elite football talent, have football infrastructure that extends in ways that dwarf most Power Five schools, and have a culture that is built to withstand negative variance due to a support foundation that is as deep and wide as any in the nation. Syracuse and LSU are on the same planet but reside in very different areas, yet the Orange walked into Death Valley and almost erased all of LSU’s advantages simply because it chose to play a different game than what LSU was playing (or wanted to play).

There is no gimmick to the Veer and Shoot: Babers’ offense is designed to exploit space on a football field and put opposing defenses in difficult positions to make decisions in the moment, stressing a defense horizontally and vertically through a highly-efficient attack that refuses to relent. The Veer and Shoot — as a concept within a greater philosophy — is simple in its approach but devastating in its impact: It necessarily alters the scope of a game as its pulls toward the extremes, but most importantly, it disallows a defense to play the way it wants to play because the Veer and Shoot, at its core, is a wholly dominating concept that permits it to exert pressure and shift a heavy burden to the opposition.*

This philosophy — promoting a concept that dictates differently, that generates imbalance that you can control — is exactly what Syracuse needs to find stabilized competitiveness. To ask Syracuse to compete the same way as Georgia or Alabama or Ohio State — schools located in talent-rich areas that are able to stockpile goods and win one-on-one — is to invite potential disaster: To wit, Syracuse has been working for almost two decades to acquire the kind of talent it needed to square up, directly, with an opponent and try to push them off their pedestal; the results have been, at best, unfruitful.

Yet, the Veer and Shoot allows Syracuse to change how football is played, authorizing the Orange to no longer hold themselves to the needs of the past: Instead of trying, in vain, to convince four- and five-star athletes that comprise The Total Package to get on a plane and head to Syracuse or ignore an offer from Michigan and instead join a rebuilding effort under the Carrier Dome roof, the Orange can focus, exclusively, on capturing and selling what it needs to populate an offense that is so far ahead of its peer’s concepts that it has been described as “unstoppable” — speed, hands, accuracy, football intelligence to read an opposing defense, and more. Syracuse doesn’t need The Total Package from its players in order to compete at a high level; it needs, only, the skill attributes necessary to make its offense, and the philosophy that supports it, work. There is relief in that — recruiting battles and player identification are different, putting Syracuse in the market for players that are potentially undervalued by others (adding an additional layer to inefficiencies that the Orange are able to exploit) or as a preferred option because Syracuse needs exactly what a recruit has (thereby standing as a best opportunity) — and allows Syracuse to compete for players that can contribute on the field in a way that is markedly different than in prior regime iterations.

In short: Syracuse doesn’t need every resource available to compete because it’s most powerful resource — its philosophy — alleviates imbalance and positions the Orange differently compared to its competitors. No longer is Syracuse playing athlete versus athlete; it’s now playing philosophy versus philosophy and the history of the Veer and Shoot shows that this is a winning battle for teams like the Orange.

This is where the first down play late in the fourth quarter illustrates the idea: Syracuse stretched — almost hilariously — the LSU defense vertically while keeping it honest horizontally, running Erv Philips on a seam and Steve Ishmael on a nine route against man coverage while Ravian Pierce flooded and pulled a linebacker with him well outside the numbers. Eric Dungey dropped a dime to Ishmael in the end zone on the easiest read possible (it also being the first option in the read, the most desirable throw), drawing the Orange to within two with plenty of time remaining to potentially capture a lead. The concepts of the Veer and Shoot, on this play as an example, promoted an environment where Syracuse’s offense could succeed — obliterating LSU’s defense in two ways on a single play — based on the efforts of three players that would have otherwise been looked at as throw-in members of an elite school’s recruiting class.

When you choose, affirmatively, to alter how the game is played, the rules that govern what’s necessary to succeed are also modified. For a school like Syracuse — in a talent desert, doesn’t have innumerable resources, and has alpha predators near its borders — a revised paradigm is blissfully important to finding success: If your philosophy fails to achieve success, you need a philosophy that’s going to work for you. Babers’ system works for Syracuse because it requires only basic necessities; if Syracuse tried to rebuild its program in the same fashion as Miami, its volition would be drastically different — a football program isn’t a football program isn’t a football program. Babers understands that, and it’s going to take some time before Syracuse fans fully appreciate the entire philosophy that Babers asserts.

* I’m not ignoring the defensive aspects associated with a team that runs the Veer and Shoot. It’s just that, over the last decade or so, nobody has really figured out a perfect complement to the tempo-aggressive, high-efficiency offense. Philosophically, the defensive idea is probably two-fold: (1) risk management, and (2) turnover generation. Some of the latter is prefaced on uncontrollable turnover luck, but the former is definitely tactical in nature — how much risk management is necessary when the Veer and Shoot will almost certainly have a stronger efficiency than the opposing offense’s school of thinking? (In other words: The Veer and Shoot will exceed the offensive efficiency of the opponent, creating a beneficial efficiency margin. How much does a defense need to do to safely control risk and create a comfortable margin?) I have some ideas, but this piece is already a monster. If you want to discuss, hit me up at some point in the offseason.


Establishing a Formal, Independent, and Organized Supporter’s Group

One of my favorite phrases is “How strong is your concrete?” In other words — “How strong is your foundation?” I don’t think it’s out of line to believe that Syracuse football’s concrete isn’t as strong as it could or should be. [insert joke about syracuse playing in a massive concrete home depot] While Syracuse certainly isn’t in a position of despair, Syracuse is behind a pile of schools when it comes to resources, not the least of which is its fan capital.

The only way to build a sustainable football program is to maintain dense concrete, and part of that requires fan investment. I choose the word “investment” very specifically — college sports, unlike professional sports, requires fans to invest physically, emotionally, and financially. You influence, in some way, the enterprise when you invest, and the more people invest, the stronger an effort becomes. The key, then, for Syracuse is finding a way to pivot its fans from believing in a consumer relationship and start thinking about their relationship as that of an investor.

This needs lots of work as there are a ton of things to consider, but the idea of creating an independent and organized supporter’s group — not unlike soccer supporter groups, but operationally different in many ways — to invest in Syracuse is something that probably deserves heavy thought. The mission of the group would include, but certainly aren’t limited to:

  • Building a culture around Syracuse football and other sports, including organizing tailgates and other culture-motivated events;
  • Purchasing tickets to distribute to community organizations to ensure that the Dome is well attended and that generations of Orange fans can be born and grown in the right way;
  • Collaborating with Otto’s Army with spirit efforts, like purchasing material for tifo, teaching the fight song and alma mater, developing and supporting traditions, etc; and
  • Organizing as a formal group to provide useful feedback and recommendations to the Syracuse athletics department to assist in promoting vibrant and successful athletic endeavors; and
  • Providing financial support to the university athletics programs for immediate needs (pitching in to build new lockers, defraying equipment maintenance costs, support in defined initiatives, etc.).

The idea wouldn’t be to create a shadow Orange Club. That carries little value. It’s focus would be to capture people that are (a) season ticket holders with some extra scratch to throw around, (b) alums and fans from afar that can’t be in the Dome but would otherwise attend if not for geographic concerns, and (c) motivated to try and change the fan culture around Syracuse via an independent organization. It’s an independent effort to bring people closer to what they love and construct more defined foundations that the university can leverage without stretching any of their human capital.

The membership structure would mirror that class of targeted fan — $100-250 per year, with certain confirmed benefits based on contribution level (any higher of a membership fee/charitable donation to the group would erode the purpose and importance of Orange Club, and that would run contrary to what is intended). With 1,000 members, that’s an solid operating budget, a decent kitty to work with to help the university and its fans get down the road and strengthen the concrete.

With volume — finding those that want to be active and understand the importance of taking real, physical steps toward making the Syracuse athletics experience better — the group can do some real good and be representative of a wider community. I think about what we all did for the Texas Bowl a few years ago — what’s holding us back, especially when we know we can help?

I don’t believe in passivity. I believe in action — you create the universe you want. Three years ago I was sick of people bemoaning the awful attendance at the Dome, the contingent support that people were giving to the football team, or decrying that the Syracuse football scene was downright awful. So I went in on season tickets and earnestly began these infinite road trips. I don’t believe in idly making demands on the internet as a means to get what I desire or rationalize my behavior. I’m going in, max pot, or it’s not worth doing. More of us need to do this, because there is a very real consequence to not doing so while the benefits far outweigh any personal expenditure.


From the top: Thanks to John & Co. for allowing me space, again, to chronicle football adventures, both insignificant and otherwise. Thanks to Tara and Dave for offering shelter, friendship, and harmonies during the alma mater — I love you guys. Thanks to Ryan, Mike, Nat, Shaun, and John for joining for a game or two and tolerating my nonsense — love you guys, too. Thanks to the folks at LSU for providing rolling hospitality throughout the day and the crew in Miami for an unforgettable tailgate (there is a new standard in tailgating and it came from a wholly unanticipated place). Thanks to Jeff for getting us to and from Baton Rouge and for good conversation throughout the weekend, even at the asscrack of dawn at JFK. To Brent — wish we could’ve caught up more; hopefully we’ll see each other again soon. A special thanks to our seat pals Peggy and Gary — you guys are saints and thank you for being part of our gameday! Thanks to the Dome staff for reinstating the train whistle and not digging in your heels for no reason at all. To everyone I got to see for only an instant or tragically missed but knew you were pouring your heart into gameday (John, John, Brian, Katie, Cait, and all the rest), let's try and see more of each other next season.

And to anyone else that I may have missed — you're an elite human and let's do it again next year.


Games Attended: 7

Syracuse's Record in Games Attended: 3-4

Miles Driven: ~2,206

Miles Flown: ~5,474

Next Syracuse Game: None

Next Syracuse Game I'm Attending: None

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