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Syracuse football: Rational optimism and managing expectations

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Just a word before we head into what should be a weird week with our friends from Tallahassee.

NCAA Football: Wagner at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

When you care about something or someone, it’s easy to believe in the best-case scenario.

You willingly look past the flaws and the cracks in the armor in favor of the ideal view. That’s a description of how you view friends, love, your house, perhaps your job. And of course, it’s also how many of us approach fandom — specifically our attachment to the Syracuse Orange.

Syracuse, as you know, is 2-0 on the season after back-to-back outputs of more than 50 points. That’s clearly awesome. It also clearly got to some fans’ heads, even before SU kicked off against Wagner on Saturday. And then, of course, Florida State struggled with Samford last night and gasoline was poured on that damn fire.

Even computers are buying into the idea of an Orange upset over the ‘Noles. What once seemed like some wishful thinking now looks alarmingly realistic. That’s awesome, from a fan standpoint. Syracuse has been building slowly but steadily under Dino Babers. A win over Florida State (even a Seminoles team that appears to be struggling so far) would be a huge coup and another major checkpoint on the road to a lasting rebuild.

Despite all of that, I just keep going back to what I (and most) Syracuse fans should know by now: “Rational optimism” and the need to manage expectations with this team, like any other.

NCAA Football: Wagner at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t even to be a buzzkill. We’ve just been here before (as recently as 2015, in fact). Syracuse fans (self included) are desperate for this program to be “back,” so the second hope of it appears, we cling to it. That sort of reaction is perfectly natural, and gets us to believe most things. You may recall the Eric Dungey mythos conversation (2015), the time we convinced ourselves we were going to the Orange Bowl (2011), and more recently, the times when we thought we were bowl-bound after signature wins at the Dome (2016, 2017).

Optimism is good. But at this very early stage in the season, I’m still couching it with rationality. You don’t have to join me. But if you choose that route of astronomic hopes and dreams after a 2-0 start, you do sort of forfeit the ability to get angry if things don’t work out that way.

Just hear me out on this year’s Orange football team...

Positives

Dungey’s healthy and as long as that’s true, we have a shot. Jamal Custis has revealed himself to be a top playmaker at receiver, and Moe Neal and Dontae Strickland do seem to be running at least a little better. SU’s offense, in general, looks like it’s operating at a more efficient clip and executing better (which is nice). The defensive line looks good when it blitzes, and Andre Cisco seems like a star in the making in the secondary. We’re also causing turnovers and making plays on special teams.

Negatives

The offensive line was supposed to be a team strength, and after a strong first half against WMU, it’s been getting blown up on most snaps. The run game does still rely heavily on Dungey, and while the receivers looked improved against Wagner, there are still drops and concerns that they group is just a little too young right now. Defensively, the team relies on pressure — and fails without it. When opposing teams get time to throw, they carve up the secondary with ease, and the linebackers are frequently caught flat-footed.

NCAA Football: Wagner at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

These lists are pretty even, no? That’s not pessimism. It’s just realistic. And because this is still — as it has been for years — a young team, that also leaves a lot of room for growth over the course of this season. Some of the things on the “negatives” list above will shift to the positives. Others may not. But that possibility for improvement is the reason we’re watching. We just have to be open to the idea that just because things don’t come together all at once it doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t.

When the betting odds are revealed this week, Syracuse could very well be a favorite over the Florida State Seminoles, but... it’s still Florida State. If we win, that’s a reason for optimism and a sign that we’re progressing forward. Should we lose, though (assuming Dungey doesn’t get hurt in the process), that’s not a reason to jump right off the bandwagon either.

Syracuse football is always a work in progress — and that’s like just about every other team in the country, really (save Alabama). I’m excited for the possibilities for Syracuse to earn a big win on Saturday, but not so much that I’m clouded from reality. A win means we’re moving forward. A loss doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going backward. No matter what happens against FSU, we don’t have to stake the entire season on the outcome.