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Is this the peak or the way up? Syracuse football is about to tell us

Orange fans have a lot to think about this coming weekend.

Louisville v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

For the past few seasons, we’ve spent a week during preseason running through a collection of different realities for the Syracuse Orange football program.

Things start more pessimistic (3-9/4-8) and move up to seven or eight wins from there. These past two years, the most optimistic projections in the lineup have “belonged” to my dog James, who’s gone with 8-4 in both 2017 and 2018.

The issue with those projections is that they topped out at eight. Syracuse is currently at that number already, so... now what?

That’s an interesting question for the Orange heading into a HUGE week 12 matchup with the No. 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (10-0). Lights will shine brightly on both programs at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, but for our purposes here, the biggest focus will be on Syracuse. At 8-2, there’s a lot to like already, though the season’s marquee win might be the close loss to Clemson. All of that changes should SU manage to upset Notre Dame.

A win means 9-2. It means a top-10 College Football Playoff ranking. It means an honest-to-goodness shot at the Peach Bowl. And it takes the season from a “weird” footnote to a bold statement about the state of the Orange program. That brings us to the question:

Is this — the 8-2 record — the peak for Syracuse? Or is it just the latest sign post on the way up?

Louisville v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Admittedly, I’m not sure just yet. You can look at the preseason projections and know this sort of season simply wasn’t on the radar. MY DOG GOT CLOSEST to the win total. That speaks volumes around how surprising this breakout campaign has been for the Orange. And the crossroads this season is at.

Before the year started, all of us would have taken 6-6 and a Pinstripe Bowl bid. Now? 8-2 could be the tip of the iceberg en route to a truly special season. We’re at the fork in the road now. The Notre Dame game is going to decide exactly where this thing goes from here.

Because honestly, the Pinstripe wouldn’t be a disappointment at all. I explained why that’s the case (thanks, Orange Bowl being in the CFP), but you can’t blame fans for feeling like it was at this point. Despite the length of time between this season and our last eight-win regular season campaign (2001), the Orange faithful are quick to get back to the old standard. With our main ACC competition for a NY6 bowl (NC State, Boston College) both losing today, it’s easy to see why.

There are some reasons to doubt Syracuse in this game against the Irish, don’t get me wrong. SU has lacked efficiency all year, looked sloppy against Louisville and still can’t stop the run. The defeats to Clemson and Pitt continue to sting, and the close win over UNC probably lingers for the most pessimistic among us (not me, for once).

However, the reasons for the upset are there, too. It’s a neutral site game at a baseball stadium. Syracuse’s seniors are dying to get to the best bowl possible in their only shot at the postseason. SU’s offense still puts up points despite lacking efficiency. The Orange special teams unit is insanely good, and an ability to create takeaways means they’re in every game. Also, ND quarterback Ian Book may or may not be ready to go...

North Carolina State v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

A loss wouldn’t destroy this season at all. But a win would certainly make it — and the near-term future of Syracuse football, too. Because an Orange team on the way up probably falls in this game, eyeing it as a learning experience on the way to further riches in the future. Yet it’s the natural peak for a touch-and-go team in a tough division, against a schedule that presented its fair share of challenges.

But a team that’s truly arrived, this is the coming out party. At No. 13 in the rankings, everyone knows who we are to this point. An upset over Notre Dame shows everyone WHAT we are: A legitimate NY6 bowl participant, one of the 10 best teams in the country, a rising power in the ACC.

This is uncharted territory in many ways. And I promise I’m on board no matter what happens come Saturday. Still, this feels like a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Orange, and it’s thrilling to see this program (which we’ve all spent so much time, energy and emotion on over the years) be this close to much more.

For the first time in nearly two decades, it feels like Syracuse can beat any opponent they face. That goes for Notre Dame too, potentially. Now we see if that feeling is out-sized confidence or a legitimate claim to being one of this season’s most important college football teams.