If you’ve taken to any sort of online gloating around Syracuse Orange football’s 10-win season, you’ve likely seen some pushback around the idea that SU’s a “real” 10-3 squad. Not from anyone that matters, mind you. But fans of rival schools seem overjoyed to point out that Syracuse’s supposed “easy” non-conference schedule aided them in adding a couple wins to the total.
Assuming that statement’s true — it does ignore Notre Dame’s presence completely — consider me overjoyed.
For years, Syracuse has unnecessarily scheduled itself into the ground, taking lumps against difficult non-conference slates to the point of actively derailing bowl teams from even getting to the postseason. The 2012 team was top-40, but finished 8-5 because the non-conference schedule included games against Northwestern (home), USC (neutral), Minnesota and Missouri (both on the road). Another couple wins would’ve likely vaulted them into the Sugar Bowl as the Big East representative. Instead, they were Pinstripe Bowl-bound.
As we mentioned back in 2017, this wasn’t a tenable strategy for football success. But the recent change in approach is one that appears far more focused on getting average teams to six wins, and good teams to far more.
For those worked up about some apparent “deception” here, I have some news: Perception is reality in college football.
So despite the fact that Syracuse was merely a top-40ish team according to F/+ this year, they’ll probably finish in the top 15. Absolutely no one voting on that distinction cares who the Orange faced in the process. The fans certainly don’t. And recruits definitely don’t. And that’s just a week after earning a 10th win. By the time we get a month or so out, the fine details will be forgotten completely. The only story for Syracuse football in 2018 will be that they went 10-3 and finished ranked in the top 15.
This isn’t even to take away from what this team accomplished this year. They were a very good team that knew how to close out games, and played an exciting brand of football that forced opponents to adapt or perish. But a lot of teams can play just like that. Scheduling well — in our case, putting at least three likely wins on the board in non-conference play — is how you elevate that sort of team from somewhere in the 6-7 win range, and jump up another rung, though.
Better still, we’re likely going to do this again next year as well.
The 2019 schedule features the usual ACC foes, plus a road game at Duke. In non-conference play, Syracuse visits Maryland and Liberty, while playing host to Western Michigan and Holy Cross. It’s no guarantee to go 4-0 there, buuuuuut we’ll be favored in all four contests at the very least.
And if things go according to plan in league play (at least four wins), the Orange may end up spending the majority of two straight seasons in the top 25.
As mentioned, perception is reality. The advanced metrics say Syracuse was not a top 25 team this year, and the caliber of recruiting talent also dictates they aren’t one either. Yet, this is step one toward actually becoming one. A couple years in the top 25 lets you go out and recruit at a higher level, then that talent elevates the caliber of play from there. Scheduling then ramps up after to coincide with that talent level and the ensuing expectations that come with it.
We’re still in the early stages of the process above. And really, you only extend past a certain point of increasing the level of difficulty if you’re legitimately included in the national title conversation. You could argue that perhaps the Orange were this year, given how close they came to an 11-win regular season. But regardless, the goal of college football is not to lose. So if I’m SU, might as well schedule yourself into the New Year’s Six conversation once every few years instead of creating unnecessary hurdles that land a good team in the Gasparilla Bowl (no offense, Bad Boy Mowers).
The work is far from done on this rebuild, though 2018 was a great step toward not just returning Syracuse to the top 25 once, but potentially for years to come. There may be bumps in the road still. Yet, we’re far better situated to deal with them now and adjust accordingly.
Neither I nor this blog can take direct credit for changing SU’s thinking around scheduling, but our decade-long campaign for easier non-conference opponents had at least a little bit of an impact. In any case, pursuing that approach paid off — hopefully not for the last time.