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Why has Syracuse football never gone unbeaten in non-conference play?

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The two obvious answers are obvious.

Middle Tennessee v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

In the aftermath of Saturday’s difficult 30-23 loss to Middle Tennessee, Brett McMurphy had this to share about the Syracuse Orange’s history of non-conference play:

“Why are we always tied to Pitt?” you ask, half-kidding.

But the real question is: Why has Syracuse never gone unbeaten in non-conference play?

For one, there have only been 27 years of non-conference play for the Orange to begin with. The Big East started sponsoring football in 1991, and before that, there were no opportunities to play “non-conference games.” If we’d been in the ACC since the 1950s or something like that, there’s little chance SU would have never gone unbeaten outside of the conference in that stretch.

Of course, the culprit for the last 27 years has been scheduling.

That’s not to completely hammer the practices of 1991 through 2003, either. Syracuse was a top-25 team at the beginning of that stretch, and should’ve been looking to may some hay outside of the budding Big East. They did, even splitting games against Florida and Florida State (beating the Gators, as you probably knew).

Donovan McNabb #5...

But if Syracuse had adopted an easier non-conference schedule, here’s a look at the years the program could’ve been in contention for a national title from 1991 through 2001:

  • 1991: 5-0 in Big East, 4-2 in non-conference
  • 1992: 6-1 in Big East, 3-1 in non-conference
  • 1996: 6-1 in Big East, 2-2 in non-conference
  • 1997: 6-1 in Big East, 2-3 in non-conference
  • 1998: 6-1 in Big East, 2-2 in non-conference
  • 2001: 6-1 in Big East, 3-2 in non-conference

In that stretch, the Orange played a slew of power conference teams, on top of an annual schedule featuring Miami, Virginia Tech and West Virginia, plus Boston College and Pitt occasionally rising up in the Big East. That’s what you should do, to an extent, if you’re a power. But by over-scheduling even then, this is what prevented the Orange from being more than just a strong Eastern team.

It’s also the same scheduling practices that influence today’s opinions around not wanting to face lesser schools, despite the obvious benefits of wins.

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

Easier schedules could’ve benefited lesser Orange squads too, as we’ve discussed ad nauseum here. There’s a chance a GERG team or two makes a bowl. Doug Marrone goes bowling all four years, and probably plays in the Sugar Bowl in 2012. That has an effect on the present, clearly, because then the program hasn’t dropped to the depths it actually did.

I don’t need to sell you on this concept. But just pointing out that over-scheduling in non-conference play is not a new thing. It’s an institutional issue for us. No one should be raked over the coals for putting quality games on the schedule when we were a top-25 team. But at the same time, when you think of what could’ve been (national titles?) had we scheduled lighter... it certainly makes you reconsider a bit.