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A bowl by any other name: Syracuse has come a long way since its last December trip to Orlando

Once upon a time, Syracuse football played in Orlando for a bowl game. It was supposed to be a reward for a successful season. Sometimes, supposed-to-bes don’t turn out as planned.

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Champ Sports Bowl - Syracuse vs Georgia Tech - December 21, 2004 Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

If you think about it, and concede that the Syracuse Orange couldn’t play in the Orange Bowl due to playoff arrangements, then fans probably got the next best thing. Their team earned a bowl trip to Florida. Nothing against the Pinstripe Bowl, but there was a slight “been there and done that” sentiment among some within the base. Plus, not only is Syracuse (9-3, 6-2 ACC) going to the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, its going to take on old rival, top-20 West Virginia.

By the time we get to kickoff at 5:15 p.m. ET on Dec. 28, the hype train will be roaring down the tracks. Two fun-to-watch teams with history together. It’s the type of bowl game that will attract plenty of eyeballs: fans and casual observers tuning in to see what could be one of the higher-scoring games of college football’s post-season.

It’s almost a dream scenario.

Funny because it was practically a nightmare the last time Syracuse made the trip south in December. Actually, it’s nearly impossible not to think about how SU was in a slow burn some 14 years ago when it played in the Camping World Bowl.

Okay, so we all know that the Camping World Bowl started in 1990 and has been known by eight different names (RIP, Blockbuster — save for the one still kicking, the Blockbuster Bowl and VHS tapes in general). It has also had different geographical locations and venues. But at its heart, it’s the same bowl game now as it was back when Home Alone was killing it at the box office and the Nintendo Gameboy cost about $90.

One of of Camping World Bowl’s incarnations was known as the Champs Sports Bowl, and Syracuse was invited to play in it back in 2004.

Syracuse Orangemen v Virginia Cavaliers Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Those Orangemen went 6-6 but somehow tied for the Big East Conference championship with a 4-2 record. All in all, it could be considered one of the strangest seasons in program history. First up, the campaign began with a nationally-televised assault by Purdue, with the Boilermakers drubbing SU, 51-0. Adding to the oddities, the Big East Conference was a complete wreck: Miami and Virginia Tech had left for the ACC pastures in a huff. Poof, everything was different from one season to the next. Furthermore, Boston College was suddenly a lame-duck member, ready to bolt for the ACC money the following year. On top of that, Temple had been kicked out and Connecticut, which was set to join anyway, made its rushed debut a little early.

It was a jumbled mess and that’s probably why Syracuse could to get to six victories and a bowl berth in ‘04. If the Hurricanes and Hokies were on the slate, the Orangemen likely don’t go bowling. Conference realignment changed the game, or changed the games, and for a few months that was a big benefit for Syracuse.

It’s virtually outlandish to consider that this Syracuse is seemingly well on the way to something. Assuming Dino Babers stays (and maybe even if he leaves), it’s not a leap of faith that the Orange could very well be right back in Florida in 2019. Hell, maybe it’ll be a New Year’s Day Orange Bowl in 2020.

Syracuse football is on track.

Syracuse football in 2004 appeared to be close to going off the rails.

In ‘04, a lot of Orange faithful were calling for Paul Pasqualoni to be fired. In the previous four seasons, Syracuse had gone to one bowl (a victory over Kansas State in the Bowl) and averaged five losses per year. The football had seemingly gone stale and blowout losses had become commonplace.

But this isn’t hit piece on Pasqualoni or on how bad SU football has been through the years.

It’s just, honestly, I simply can’t get over how that bowl invite in ‘04 didn’t have the feel of justification. There wasn’t a “come on to Orlando, Syracuse, we can’t wait for you!” vibe. The entire year had a murky pall hanging over it. I mean, even with the Big East being limited, if Diamond Ferri doesn’t go into hyper F-U-Mode, then...wait, let’s not go further without showing just what Ferry did to the Eagles.

<takes a cold shower>

That was breathtaking and season changing. It was as good a day Syracuse had on the gridiron in years and it was spectacular to watch. Ferri’s dominance actually almost saved Pasqualoni’s job. In the game recap, the New York Times even predicted that “the victory will make it more difficult for Syracuse to fire Pasqualoni.”

Ferri’s feats, for better or worse, sent Syracuse to the Champs Sports Bowl. A great moment because the Orangemen upset BC and at the same time made sure the Eagles, who were leaving the conference, would not represent the Big East in the BCS. That moment didn’t last too long, what with Syracuse being subsequently lambasted by Georgia Tech, 51-14, in its ensuing bowl matchup. An ugly loss. An abject failure. Just look at the picture on top of this post. It has the feel that was snapped after the final horn, with Pasqualoni, Perry Patterson and Jared Jones all dazed and beaten, wobbling back to the locker room, ready to get the hell out of Orlando. In reality, that’s a photo of the three of them taken right after the second quarter. There were two more quarters to go, but it didn’t matter: the game was over before it began.

After the Yellow Jackets got done curb-stomping the Orangemen, things got even more odd for the program.

Director of Athletics Jake Crouthamel officially retired and the school welcomed in DOCTOR Daryl Gross. Gross then flipped the script and fired Pasqualoni. Gross, who loved himself some self, then burned the script by hiring Greg GERG Robinson. (Yeesh.) On top of that, the Big East changed yet again by welcoming in Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida.

We all know how things would go for the next decade-plus. Syracuse switched coaches, uniforms, conferences. Nothing ever felt stable. Nothing ever really felt the same. I guess the Champs Sports Bowl appearance was the start of something: it was the beginning of the end.

Syracuse v Boston College Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Some 14 years later, Syracuse returns to the same city for what amounts to essentially same bowl game. It also has a completely different feel this time around. The Orange are coveted, wanted. This invite isn’t an un-invite like in 2004. The Camping World Bowl, and the Orlando area, wants SU in town. The buzz you hear is emanating from central New York all the way south.

And Syracuse, opposite those dying Big East days, is clearly firmly entrenched in the Atlantic Coast Conference; no need to worry about programs bolting or being kicked out. The ACC ain’t going nowhere. SU also has a leader players and fans believe in.

In December of 2018, the future seems bright and, just as important, it seems pretty secure. Those are feelings and emotions fans couldn’t even think about 14 years back.