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College Football Playoff ‘darkhorse’ talk can be whatever Syracuse fans want it to be

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... or it could doom this fan base to disappointment. Who knows.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Boston College Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse Orange fans just like to know what to expect. It’s reasonable in life for most people, too. You just want a proper gauge on what the outcome might be going into a given situation.

This past season, the SU men’s basketball team was getting top-25 hype going in and there was a thought that a team full of returning veterans could wind up back in the Sweet 16 at the very least. As you know, that did not happen, and fans were understandably disappointed at the team falling short of what was seemingly spelled out in advance.

For football, the opposite was true in 2018. With initially modest expectations around winning six games, a 10-win season wound up being an amazing accomplishment for the program. Its fans (self included) were almost clueless on how to react to the unexpected result. After a very long wait, SU was “back” in some capacity — something made better by the fact that no one could’ve called it in advance.

While we appreciate the ability to set expectations, it’s a rarity that what actually happens falls in line with them. And that’s what makes sports fandom such a difficult and frustrating endeavor. No, you don’t complain when a surprisingly positive result (SU’s 2018 football season, the 2016 Final Four run) occurs. But you certainly do when the negative ones jump up and bite you.

We bring all of this up because of some recent Syracuse football coverage that used the best and worst words a program like the Orange can hear:

NCAA Football: Camping World Bowl-West Virginia vs Syracuse Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

College Football Playoff Darkhorse

Syracuse, as you know, is in that middle ground of most very early college football preseason polls, where they’re not necessarily a national title contender but could contend for a New Year’s Six game. The 15-20 range is the perfect spot for either teams that could jump up with the right schedule or those that could succumb to the challenge and wind up finishing outside of the top 25.

From all accounts, the Orange seem to be getting the benefit of the doubt that they’ll be the former. Both Bleacher Report and 247Sports named SU as a “darkhorse” playoff contender this week, and Stadium named Syracuse a “darkhorse” team to win the ACC in 2019 (earning a NY6 bid with that, at minimum). Now the question is, should they really be in these conversations at all?

Most Syracuse football fan of more than two years likely holds the same level of justifiable confusion. This program is knocking on the door? But what about the endless string of calamities that can befall us over the course of 12 games and a far-from-simple ACC schedule? How does Syracuse replace Eric Dungey? What about the linebackers? The offensive line replaces three starters... that’s bound to cause some issues, right?

Those are the fans for which the “darkhorse” label is probably fine. We get the connotation there and that it’s still a longshot. SU’s still positioned well to win at least seven games in a year where they’re without their four-year starting QB and that’s amazing progress under Dino Babers.

But it also allows for the other side of the coin: Syracuse is, almost inevitably, going to fall short of these expectations if you attach too much weigh to them. And there will be numerous fans that do.

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

It’s not that we can’t pull it off. If we’ve learned anything under Babers these past three years it’s that anything is conceivably possible. However, College Football is a sport of a handful of powers and the Orange are not one. Challengers jump up every so often, but they’re typically smacked down at some point. Clemson is the closest analogy to a program that fought its way into the top tier and that still took decades. Programs like Oregon, Washington, Michigan State and more have shown just how hard it is to break through as a non-traditional power.

If we’re being realistic, all a CFP “darkhorse” designation really means is that we’re ranked and on reporters’ radars as they search for offseason content. These pieces are the peak of that search for ideas to write about, and this article you’re reading probably is too.

So take these evaluations — and there will be more of them — with a grain of salt and be happy that we’re in the conversation. If Syracuse somehow surpasses the hypothetical nature of these claims and becomes a TRUE Playoff contender, well then we get to continue to be pleasantly surprised by the result.

If they fall short, though, that’s also fine, provided they still manage to make a respectable bowl game. Last year’s 10 wins were great, but also a bit beyond the talent level of the team. Now, Babers and his staff are adding players that can turn that one-year wonder into staying power. It just might take a little more patience on our part, even as we’ve seen the evidence to believe.

Just try not to let that “belief” tell you that 15-0 is now the only acceptable conclusion. Please, for my sake.