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Is Syracuse really ready to take the next step? Pittsburgh might be the perfect opponent to find out

Syracuse wasn’t out classed or out matched in its close lose at Clemson. It’s a moral victory for now, maybe, but this weekend represents a lot more than just a chance at win number five.

Syracuse v Clemson
Syracuse came close to winning, but it accomplished an awful lot in its loss at Clemson
Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange came thisclose to being 5-0 after nearly holding on against the Clemson Tigers last Saturday. What could have been for SU inside Memorial Stadium is burned into the mind and soul of fans. Had it happened, it would have been a win that would have all but guaranteed a spot in the top-15 for a program that hasn’t had a cup-of-coffee in the polls since 2001. A major victory that would have changed expectations, the course of the season and likely the future (immediate and potentially long term) of Syracuse football.

The Orange had chances, almost too many to be believed in what felt a little like a basketball game when Jim Boeheim’s team survives a bevy of missed baskets by the opponent to pull off a big upset (see State, Michigan). But big-time college football ain’t horseshoes or throwing hand-grenades: close for Syracuse was good but it just wasn’t good enough.

So, now what?

First things first, Dino Babers has to make sure his Orange men don’t fall off the map before they’re even officially back on it. We’ve seen Syracuse tank out following emotional wins (Virginia Tech in 2016 and Clemson in 2017) in previous seasons. It looked like the corner had been turned against the Tigers in the Dome last October, but that didn’t seem to matter much in the weeks that followed.

Sure, this version of the Orange just looks differently than it has before, even compared to last season. That we know. But new-look Syracuse will be rebounding off a gut-punching loss, meaning there won’t be a hangover lingering from victory parties like in years past, only heartache to get over. That’s a new wrinkle: responding to a high-stake’s loss. We don’t yet know if this team will shake off the previous week and move forward.

That first retort post Clemson won’t be on nearly as big a stage as last weekend’s main event either. The game with the Tigers came with a decent amount of attention, some national features through the course of game week, and a lot of eyeballs once the ball was kicked off. Playing in Pittsburgh’s probably half-empty Heinz Field at 12:20 in front of Raycom Sports’ cameras is kind of like a preliminary bout before the headlining heavyweight title fight. The hype train doesn’t have a depot in Pittsburgh right now.

A big reason why is because Pat Narduzzi’s squad has struggled mightily on both sides of the ball in 2018. Offensively, the Panthers average 137 yards less per game than Syracuse and they have 10 fewer touchdowns. On defense, Pitt is giving up 32 points per contest—38 and 45 points respectively in the last two games. It’s sitting at 2-3 with a real chance of losing the next five games (vs. Syracuse, at Notre Dame, vs. Duke, at Virginia, vs. Virginia Tech).

To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, the three best words that best describe the way Pitt is playing are as follows, and I quote: Stink! Stank! Stunk! Beating Pitt is something good teams do like it’s their job. Can Coach Babers and company follow suit?

Before answering that, consider the following: SU hasn’t won on the road against the Panthers since that ‘01 season (the last time the program was included in the main top-25s). Since that last win at Pittsburgh, Syracuse has had five different head coaches. A remarkable stretch of instability. (Oddly enough, the Panthers have had six over the same period!) Clearly, both progames have struggled, but it’s actually SU which has gone 3-13 total in the last 16 match-ups with Pittsburgh.

If Syracuse could have beaten the highly-ranked and possibly playoff-bound Tigers, it would have been the most idyllic scenario to announce a return to the national conversation. There wouldn’t be many questions left had the Orange actually escaped Death Valley alive, except maybe: can the Orange make the playoffs?

Taking down the Panthers doesn’t have the same sense of wonder, disbelieve to it, but it arguably means just as much. We can all hassle over exactly what being “back” means for Orange football, but there’s little question that winning the winnable games is included in every one of the possible definitions. And it’s only fitting SU wins in Western PA to reaffirm to everyone that things are really different.

Beating the beatable should finally lead to a return to the Land of the Ranked, an important side effect of victories. It might be a trivial listing of 25 teams, but it certainly signifies something in Syracuse. Earning win number five in the first six games likely vaults the Orange into the polls, especially given that breathtaking near miss at Clemson.

For this one, though, the Orange won’t need some kind of storybook taming of the Tigers in South Carolina. On Saturday, Syracuse will simply need to get past its recent past in Pittsburgh to prove it’s really moving up and finally moving on.