I’d almost forgotten what it was like to feel any sort of joy or excitement for the Syracuse Orange football team, just a year removed from a season full of it.
So with that in mind, it was thrilling and confusing to witness SU’s complete dismantling of Duke on Saturday; the 49-6 victory over a conference foe looking more impressive than all but a handful of Orange victories in the ACC. That’s not because the Blue Devils are some sort of world-beater. Rather, Syracuse played a smart and effective game that saw true effort from start to finish, and opportunistic execution on both sides of the ball. Even last year, SU wasn’t running through conference teams like they did Duke.
The positives were also boosted by all of the negatives leading up to this point, of course.
At 3-6 coming in, there was little reason to believe something like the Duke win was possible for this team. The offense was a shell of its former self. The defense was easily trounced by a capable run game. Mistakes (penalties, in particular) were major factors in most results.
Even after Dino Babers fired Defensive Coordinator Brian Ward, it seemed farfetched to think that a ton would be fixed by one staff change. Yet, we’ve now been exposed to the upper limits of what this team can do after weeks of watching the lower limits. It’s not full redemption following what’s been a largely regrettable regular season. However, it certainly inspired some faith in this group for the first time in months.
Now the question begs what will they do with it? Because there’s quite a bit at stake here.
With two games left, Syracuse is 4-6 and still in the running to make a bowl. Though that almost certainly requires them to win both games, the opponents — Louisville and Wake Forest — are both beatable even if SU will be an underdog this weekend and next. We expected the postseason coming in 2019, yes. But getting there given what transpired before would be an impressive feat for Babers and this team. And a big selling point for potential recruits as the staff tries to close stronger than the started on the class of 2020.
Fans could also be won over. I’ve already argued this season shouldn’t shatter faith entirely in Babers and this staff, but there are opinions to the contrary out there. Perhaps 6-6 (and maybe 7-6 with a bowl win) won’t convince fans that completely bailed given the rough start. But for the fans still on board and/or waiting for a sign that this staff was able to make the adjustments required, rebounding to .500 and a bowl is the sort of thing that fixes many of the doubts instilled over the season’s first nine games.
This isn’t trying to irrationally drive our hopes up, or even entertain seriously entertain the idea of a bowl right now. Rather, it’s just a look at what this team could earn by doing what was deemed unthinkable a couple weeks ago — or at least attempting to pull it off.
Babers earned our belief without evidence once, then earned our faith by delivering on all of that promise last year. A bowl this season won’t just erase the issues that created this predicament to begin with. But it should show just how capable he is to lead this program through tougher stretches. The fact that he and this team have already shown they won’t fold is a good start. If they can keep it going will be the more interesting part, though.