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Syracuse football: This is the hard part

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It’s a moment like this one where the resolve of the team, staff, and fan base is tested most.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Last fall, I wrote this. It was a cop out. College Football is a sport based on pain. Unless you’re one of four or five programs, the pain of a season will always seem to outweigh the good. If you’re a fan of one of the many middle tier programs, that pain is more acute as it comes when your team fails to take that next step.

For the Syracuse Orange, Saturday’s game was demoralizing, embarrassing, and certainly among the worst showings of the Dino Babers era. There was a legitimate opportunity for Syracuse to become the center of the College Football Universe for a weekend, and not only did they miss that chance, they did so in a way that missing the opportunity became part of the joke.

Now, with an impending loss to Clemson on the horizon, the Orange will more than likely start the year 1-2, rather than 2-1. And for a program that’s coming off a 10-3 season, this is close to the worst-case scenario.

I’m not going to spew some bullshit about “real fans,” like we saw surrounding the senior game a couple years ago. But I will say that this is where fandom is tested. These are the moments where it sure as hell seems like investing emotional energy into this team is bad for your overall health. Ghosts of games and seasons past haunt those here long enough to experience them and fans who have heard the cautionary tales.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless of what happens, I can’t say the pain is worth it. I can’t say that an 8-4 season like many predicted will feel like a success.

I can say this, though: After Babers’s first season, the Orange ranked 79th in S&P+. At the end of last season, the Orange ranked 40th. Dino said this — staying good — was the hard part all offseason. Being “occasionally great” doesn’t just apply to a single game, but can mean a single season. He wants to get to “consistently good,” and while we thought we may have been there after one year, there’s still a little more work to be done in that department apparently if the Orange want to be a fixture in and around the top 25.

No matter what the polls said, this team was not there just yet at the end of last season. They had a manageable schedule, caught lightning in a bottle and took their turn in the spotlight for the first time in awhile. Saturday’s loss shows that from a talent perspective, SU clearly isn’t the top-25 fixture we’d just assumed. But should the team improve as the year goes on (very possible), they could be a low 30’s team in the numbers and poll votes. And that would be wholistic improvement.

We’ve said it before — maybe to exhaustion — but this is a teaching moment for the players, staff, and fans. Progress is rarely linear, as someone once said here. And being “back” isn’t simply a switch that gets flipped. Being “back” is a process Syracuse is still in the middle of. It hurts. But there’s a non-zero chance it will be worth it.