Who would have thought all of this was going to happen? That the Syracuse Orange (9-3) would really be nationally ranked and about to take part in the Camping World Bowl, set to face off against the No. 16 West Virginia Mountaineers down in Orlando, Fl.
SU living in a timeline like this one?
To see all of it coming, you wouldn’t have to just be a glass-half-full person, the glass in question full of some pretty potent stuff.
Back in August, even for the biggest optimist, the expectations of most followers were probably somewhere between “don’t be a train wreck” and “get six wins.” The thought of earning a trip to take part in a Sunshine State bowl game likely not in the forefront of most.
That goes double, or maybe more, for anyone who witnessed a key two-game stretch back in October. Both resulted in wins for Syracuse, with the Orange taking two entirely different paths to earn the respective victories.
Think back to the fourth quarter with the North Carolina Tar Heels (who entered the Dome with a 1-4 overall record). The road team was leading 27-20 and it had an opportunity to potentially ice the game with a late field goal. Had the kick been true, the Tar Heels would have secured a 10-point lead over a Syracuse team that had seemingly forgotten how to play offense.
In other words, after the previous two defeats—at Clemson and at Pittsburgh—and then coming home and laying an egg against the woeful Tar Heels, after having a bye the weekend before, the season was over.
We all know what happened next, though. The kick missed, Dino Babers put in Tommy DeVito and then....
The redshirt freshman threw three TD passes, including the game-winner in overtime, to help the Orange stave off UNC and stave off disaster. It was a display witnessed live by the hundreds of people who hadn’t streamlined out of the Dome moments earlier. DeVito looked like something unseen at quarterback in central New York. A revelation. And instead of sitting at 4-3, 1-3 like the folks who left thought would be the case, Syracuse moved itself to the cusp of bowl eligibility, to the brink of something special.
Of course, coming back to beat a bad team at home isn’t memorable in and of itself. Sure, it made for a fun few minutes for the fans who actually stuck it out inside the Dome that day. (And maybe it portended DeVito’s future.) But had Syracuse gone on to finish something like 5-7? Beating the Tar Heels wouldn’t still register the way it does now, with the Orange ready for an ESPN bowl date, surpassing most expectations.
Which was solidified in many ways by what happened next.
Syracuse put a deposit on property inside the top-25 because of the week and weekend after the closer-than-it-should-have-been battle with the Tar Heels.
That’s when head coach Babers debated about turning the quarterback reigns over to DeVito full time. Meaning senior Eric Dungey, a star who has paid as many dues as any QB ever has at Syracuse, would be relegated to the bench. If Babers made a move, it could reinvigorate his team. It could also split the team and put too much pressure on one player, someone with exactly zero starts in his brief career.
In some ways, the tense late-game moments with North Carolina spilled over in the build up to the next game with the N.C. State Wolfpack.
Could a Devito-led Syracuse gone on and beaten then No.-22 State? Would that version of the Orange still win nine total games and end up with the same bowl invitation? Possibly. Either way, there was definitely a crossroads feel to everything.
Dungey’s subsequent performance against the Wolfpack on that Saturday night, however, was equal parts stunning and reassuring. The senior had just 11 incomplete passes in 38 attempts, throwing for 411 yards and three scores. He also rushed for 32 yards and another touchdown for good measure as Syracuse went on to win, 51-41.
SU, with the highlight-reel quarterback back, looked like it belonged. Deserving to be included in the rankings, in the prime-time spotlight, in the conversation. And even after a Bronx beat-down by Notre Dame, Syracuse still checks all of the boxes. It matters.
It was those two games, both victories no matter how you measure, and that week’s worth of football in October in which 2018 was made and Orange football was redefined. Ghosts of season’s past were stuck in everyone’s minds, and the wounds of November flame-outs were fresh, yet somehow Syracuse did the opposite of folding up shop. It found itself in finding ways to win. By the time the Orange was done hanging 51 on the Wolfpack, the entire nation knew Syracuse was on to something.
The Orange turned the tables in stunningly different but certainly telling ways. An announcement two games in the making: Losing streaks and losing records aren’t on the agenda anymore. They’ve since been replaced with hopes of big wins and bigger bowl games.