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We don’t know what Syracuse’s football season brings, but this feels different

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Many questions remain, but there’s a different air about this team now.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Going into Saturday’s matchup between the Syracuse Orange and Florida State Seminoles, we talked about rational optimism toward a potential upset. Syracuse had a real opportunity to beat a rebuilding FSU team, but whether they won or lost, it didn’t necessarily tell us much about the way the 2018 season plays out.

I stand by that idea even after a dominating 30-7 Orange win that really could’ve been much more one-sided. Though there is a caveat:

Things certainly FEEL different after Saturday’s victory. Perhaps they already were — Zaire Franklin posited as much following SU’s upset over Clemson last season. However, that Syracuse team failed to win another game for the rest of the year and looked increasingly outmatched in the process.

For this Syracuse team, though, there’s something that appears to be clicking beyond the W-L record. The Orange are 3-0 for the first time under Dino Babers. You may recall the last time we hit this mark back in 2015; an event that was more verbal warfare than congratulatory remarks. Fittingly, that SU team lost the next eight games and Scott Shafer was officially on his way out before the start of the finale against Boston College.

The 2018 team’s three wins are probably better than the 2015 team’s were, but it’s nothing worth arguing over. What’s different this time around is how this squad is seemingly just getting started on its road to what could be much greater improvement over the course of the year.

It’s a program-wide adjustment in thinking, really. And you see it in the players, the fans and the coaches. Babers’s latest locker room speech was great, of course. But this just felt like another win. No fluke play here or injuries to lend a hand, really. Syracuse was flat-out better than a much more talented Florida State team. SU’s players said as much afterward, too. Alton Robinson was direct when he said that the better team won.

This echoes the attitudes of much of the team. From Eric Dungey to the receivers — “annihilate” has been the name of the game going into contests. When was the last time Syracuse could seriously even consider it week-in and week-out?

Because while we’re not fully “there” just yet, you can tell that Babers’s vision is truly rounding into form. It may not look exactly the way he wants it to. And maybe it never does. But the evidence was there that Syracuse is no longer just getting by as a middling team with some lucky breaks. Again, accounting for Florida State’s struggles, the Orange did prove themselves a different program this weekend.

Syracuse’s defense, of all things, was what kept them on top during an ugly first half for the SU offense. When Dungey went out with an apparent eye issue (TBD on where that goes from here), Tommy DeVito stepped in and managed a mistake-free game. He wasn’t putting up record-breaking stats. He didn’t have to. The redshirt freshman sparked the offense behind accurate passing and the help of a strong run game as well. SU outscored Florida State 24-7 in the final 30 minutes, all with DeVito at the helm.

That’s not a campaign to replace Dungey with DeVito right now. It’s just to point out that this team — like most “good” teams — is not the one that shudders at the first sign of trouble anymore.

When Western Michigan was threatening to take the lead in the opener, Dungey came back in, the defense buckled down and the threat was neutralized. Against Wagner, SU led by just seven points when the defense and special teams made some timely plays to turn the tide firmly back in the Orange’s favor for good. In this one, a rough offensive start and Dungey’s absence didn’t derail the effort against a beatable ‘Noles squad. Syracuse opened up the playbook, stayed aggressive on D and wound up with a 23-point win over a team full of four- and five-star players

This season has many more games left to go, though. And the test to see if all of this is permanent change is to let everything continue to play out. A game against UConn next week should conceivably yield the program’s first 4-0 start since 1991. Even a very good Syracuse team probably loses by a significant amount to Clemson the following week. That’s fine, should it happen.

Because Babers is still building something. That doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps in the road. And that doesn’t mean it’s just “built” one day. Realistically, we won’t even know how far along it is this year until the Pitt game, which is both frustrating and exciting all at once.

So get excited for what’s happening, but also try not to skip ahead to what could happen next. This is an imperfect team that’s bound to show more of its imperfections as the season wears on. For the first time in a while, though, those might be outweighed by their abilities to triumph over them. That’s new and different, even if it only feels that way right now.