The back half of the 2018 college football season has featured a lot of complaints about how “predictable” everything was.
Alabama started the season as the odds-on favorite, and has steamrolled everyone in their path. Clemson was expected to be great, and they are. The teams that vaulted to the top of the rankings early have stayed there. In a sport that typically features a handful of huge upsets that shape each season, they simply haven’t happened this time around.
But as others have mentioned before, if you’re truly bored by this year, then you’re defining the season by the wrong metrics. The margins, it ends up, are where the typically slow college football machine moves much quicker. It should come as no surprise that a special season like the one the Syracuse Orange are working on would happen there instead of at the very top of the sport.
That’s not to underplay what’s happened here, either. This season has surpassed the wildest dreams of many fans (self included), and actively reset the bar for what Syracuse football can be in the modern era.
We have tradition and recent-ish success, sure. But population shifts, economic realities, alumni hubs and other factors made it appear harder and harder to win big at a place like SU. The Orange could probably jump up the way we saw them do so under Doug Marrone. Lasting success looked like a taller order than the program could achieve in its current state. I say “looked,” because the 2018 season has a chance to put all of that talk in the past tense for Syracuse.
For the past 12 years, I’ve said seasons like this were once-in-a-generation for SU at this point. I still may believe that, though 2018 gives me at least some faith that we’re looking at a much different reality now. Ends up for all of his faults in a search for a “special place,” former athletic director Mark Coyle’s hire of Dino Babers was the bold thinking that the program needed. John Wildhack’s potentially bold thinking on how to keep him here is what makes this more than a flash in the pan.
Changing the conversation about Syracuse, there’s a clear path forward. In the margins, we’re a nationally-ranked team and will almost definitely end the season that way. In the margins, we’re making strides in the quality of recruit we bring in the door. In the margins, we led all but one game in the fourth quarter and have a chance to score our first 10-win season since 2001.
When you win four games for three straight years, and three the year before that, 2018 looks like a tectonic shift in what Syracuse football is. For those of us that choose to dig into the adjustments and improvements behind the scenes, you could see that the Orange were building toward success — even if not to this exact extent.
It’s those changes, over the course of several years, that tell the real narrative of a given football season. Celebrating Alabama’s umpteenth title is fine... for Alabama fans. And of course it’s worth marveling at the collection of talent they’ve been able to put together in Tuscaloosa. But for the other 129 fan bases, the story of 2018 doesn’t come from the Tide. It’s about Northwestern winning the Big Ten West. Or Pitt surprising and winning the Coastal, or Utah breaking through in the Pac-12 South. OR: Syracuse breaking a 17-year streak of being outside of the top-25.
So no matter what happens in 2019 and beyond for the Orange, don’t expect to be competing for national titles anytime soon. And don’t be upset if we don’t end up there either. Syracuse doesn’t have the talent base, resources or alumni support to operate at that level every season. Over 95 percent of college football fan bases say the exact same thing. There’s no shame in potentially becoming a perennial contender to win eight or nine games.
If nothing else, this season should get us to believe in a different calculus to success. And then we get to define what that success is. What we “can’t” do shouldn’t take away from what we actually can. And what we “can’t” doesn’t necessarily have to stay that way forever either. I mean, look at this year, and what we expected from it in advance. I’d happily be wrong all over again if SU found a way to continue to elevate themselves. I’m just not going to let my enjoyment of this thing be dictated by it.
Until that future, whatever it may be, I’m enjoying the fact that our team did what they “couldn’t” and with a bowl game left, are eyeing what they “can’t” do (win 10 games in modern college football). Most fans in the country won’t care. We don’t have to care about that, either. WE (Syracuse’s players, coaches, fans, administration) did something great in 2018. That’s all that matters, for this moment anyway.